By Dan Wetzel
ABOVE PHOTO: USA’s gold medalist Shani Davis is flanked by South Korea’s silver medalist Mo Tae-bum, right, and USA’s bronze medalist Chad Hedrick during the men’s 1000-m speedskating medal ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010.
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
RICHMOND, British Columbia–Shani Davis had a card made up that read “underdog,” a motivational ploy he looked at daily to remind him to stay hungry no matter how many pundits predicted gold in the 1,500-meter men’s speed skate.
Chad Hedrick kept taking every quiet moment to dream the same dream over and over – winning gold in his final individual race as an Olympian, going out in style at age 32.
They were two Americans, profoundly different men carrying
the same single goal.
Neither did. The Netherlands’ Mark Tuitert came out of nowhere to take gold with a time of 1:45.57. Davis wound up with a tough-to-take silver. Hedrick finished sixth.
Yet both walked out of the Richmond Olympic Oval displaying something worth celebrating – a measure of class and grace in defeat that wasn’t always there as the two competed, feuded, fumed and pouted over the last couple of Olympics.
“I’m not going to sit here and make an excuse,” Davis said. “I did the best I could and I just wasn’t strong enough.”
Said Hedrick, “I came up short and I’m man enough to admit it.”
The focus on the Olympics is on winning, and that’s fine. You play the game for a reason. No nation is more obsessed with medal counts and podium appearances than the U.S., and no two members of Team USA want it more than these guys.
Yet sometimes there is winning found in losing, and that was evident on a bitter, disappointing evening here. Davis and Hedrick have defined the United States’ men’s speedskating team for most of the last six years and it hasn’t always been pretty.
They are two big personalities, two driven, competitive men that stood in each other’s way, siphoning off attention, sponsors and championships. Davis is a pioneering presence out of the south side of Chicago, at times an aloof, distant and volatile personality. Hedrick is the Texan, a Houston kid who grew up on roller skates, took to the sport in his mid-20s and was ready to bulldoze over everything to get his way. Hedrick now is retired from solo competition (there is just a team pursuit race remaining). Davis said he would likely return and give it a shot at the 2014 Games in Russia, where he’ll be 31. Who knows, though, it’s a long way off.
This was their last head-to-head challenge, each envisioning defeating the world and, of course, each other.
“If I was a betting man I would have put my money on the Americans,” Hedrick said. “Quite a bit of money.”
Then neither man skated as he envisioned. Hedrick said he was too emotional, he let the buildup to this being his final race overwhelm him. He said he burned valuable energy prerace when he teared up in the locker room.
“You thought you were ready emotionally but you’re not,” he said.
Davis said he just couldn’t find the drive to chase down the fast time that no one envisioned Tuitert, a 1,000-meter specialist, could produce.
“I really hoped I could cap these Olympics off with victory,” Davis said. “I just didn’t have enough.”
There’s no bemoaning a silver medal. Yet Davis wasn’t satisfied. Both men were despondent at the result, both men’s minds racing over the opportunity lost.
“The Americans, we race for here,” Hedrick said of the Olympics, noting that in the U.S. things like World Championships or European meets don’t carry the same cache. “For us, this is our big day.”
Under these tough moments, dealing with regret of the big day gone, both men wound up standing tall. There was nothing but praise for the winner. Nothing but perspective-filled pride that they did their best and it just wasn’t good enough. No complaints. No anger. No self-loathing.
“The Olympics is all about one guy coming out and having that special day and becoming a champion,” Hedrick said. “Mark is a friend of mine.”
Said Davis, “[Mark is] the king of the hill. He won the king’s race and he has the title of king to me now. I wish I could’ve had the title but Mark has it and I can’t think of another skater who’s [more] deserving of that than Mark.
“That’s just the way of the sport,” continued Davis, who had a similar silver in the 1,500 meters at the 2006 Olympics. “On any given day someone can go out and achieve greatness. It just happened to me in Torino and then it happens to me in Vancouver.
“I just have to accept it and hopefully I can get stronger from it.”
Both actually smiled. Both carried their heads high. Who knows how they would’ve acted in Turin, when both admit they weren’t as mature. Davis since then has developed a deeper love of the sport. Hedrick got married and had a daughter. Both have won plenty of medals, including gold. So maybe that tempered the loss of one more.
“I think dreaming is OK,” Hedrick said. “I think dreaming of that perfect storybook ending is OK.”
Neither man won the gold that had floated through their dreams. Neither delivered their best in the big race. One day, they may realize that in their reaction, they achieved something even better.