TORONTO (Reuters) - When speedskating coach Jamal Nubani took charge of his first practice at a suburban Chicago rink in 1993, one youngster stood out immediately for the wrong reasons.
The 11-year-old would not stay still and kept jousting with other children at the practice. So Nubani, a self-confessed strict disciplinarian, pulled everyone to the middle of the ice rink and asked the child his name.
“Shani Davis,” came the reply. Nubani promptly booted the rambunctious youngster off the ice and told him not to return until he was ready to behave.
“He had a little meltdown, he went and stood in the stands, and then by the next workout he fell right in line and was a good trooper,” Nubani told Reuters in a telephone interview.
That moment of boyhood rebellion foreshadowed a skating career seemingly always on the edge of controversy. But Nubani also remembers Davis’ hard work, a trait that now has the 27-year-old on the verge of Olympic glory.
Davis is heavily favored to be the first American in 16 years to win multiple speedskating gold medals in one Olympics -- probably in the 1000 and 1500 meters -- following Bonnie Blair’s feat in Lillehammer.
Davis was born and raised in Chicago’s predominantly African-American south side, where most children never try speed skating never mind achieve the success he has.
He started roller skating when he was two years old and began ice skating when he was six. His mother moved them to Chicago’s northern suburbs so he could get better training.
It paid off. At Turin in 2006, Davis became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at a Winter Olympics, in the 1000m.
Prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, there were rumblings that his teammates worked together in a race to help Davis qualify for the final spot on the short-track team. An arbitration panel later decided there was no wrongdoing.
Then, at the 2006 Olympics, he declined to race with the U.S. men’s speedskating relay team, kicking off a public feud with team mate Chad Hedrick.
He even got into a war of words last year with comedian Stephen Colbert before seemingly patching things up in a mock race on The Colbert Report, a cable television show that spoofs U.S. politics and culture.
But portraying Davis as a rebel against the system is misleading, at least when it comes to his off-ice personality.
“He’s always joking and having fun, and in that respect he’s always friendly to all the skaters,” said former U.S. speedskating bronze medalist Kip Carpenter, who is Davis’ equipment manager.
“I don’t think he walks around feeling that he’s not accepted at this point.”
Carpenter, who sometimes “bounces ideas” off the skater when it comes to the technical aspects of his racing, stresses one thing, though; he is definitely not Shani Davis’ coach. Davis does not have a coach.
A firm belief in the unorthodox method of coaching himself -- which includes keeping a detailed personal log of training sessions stretching back years -- is the key to Davis’ success, according to Carpenter.
Past controversies, not to mention his standing as the lone African-American speedskater in an otherwise homogeneous world of top-level speed skating, ensure Davis will again draw attention in Vancouver.
But the big test will be whether his on-ice success can overshadow anything that happens off it.
“What he’s done is amazing, and what he’s going to do this year is going to be additionally amazing,” says Carpenter.
Editing by Frank Pingue