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Shani Davis adds to U.S. letdowns at Sochi

Updated: February 13, 2014 11:23AM

SOCHI, Russia – Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with yourself when you’re in unfamiliar territory. Shani Davis crossed the finish line Wednesday night, looked at his time, took in the strange fact that he wasn’t in first place and bowed his head.

The speedskating world didn’t know what to do, either, and come to think of it, Chicago probably had trouble figuring out how to act.

Davis with a gold medal around his neck after the 1,000 meters — that’s supposed to be like clockwork, right? Correct. It’s something we’ve come to count on every four years. The 31-year-old Chicago native was chasing history Wednesday, trying to become the first U.S. male speedskater to win gold in the same event in three straight Winter Olympics.

Instead, the prerace favorite finished a shocking eighth, almost three-quarters of a second behind gold medalist Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands. Davis also won gold at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics.

Now, nothing seems certain anymore. For example, I’m not counting on the swallows returning every year to Capistrano.

“This one hurts me a lot,’’ Davis said.

But not for the reason you might think. He was aware of the chance at history Wednesday night, but he said afterward it wasn’t what he was pondering as he dug his skate in the ice behind the starting line.

“It wasn’t the thing I was looking to do,’’ he said. “If I win the race, great, and I make history, that’s great. But first and foremost, I wanted to win the race. I wanted to win the gold medal. If I did that and made history, that’s wonderful. I wasn’t able to do it, so I’m pretty sad – not about making history but winning the medal, more than anything.’’

Adding to his pain is the realization that America usually only turns it eyes toward him once every four years. He has a good life, a fulfilling life, but one of the greatest skaters in Olympic history can probably walk down Michigan Avenue and not get noticed.

That’s the way it is. He has won four Olympic medals, including two silvers in the 1,500, and he has made lots of money in Europe. But in the United States, skating is reserved for hockey players and to people in sequins.

That’s why eighth place hurt so much Wednesday.

“When the world stage is watching, with the Americans and NBC and things like, I just wasn’t able to do it,’’ he said. “So I’m very disappointed in that, but I’m a competitor.’’

It has been a bad few days for U.S. Olympic icons. Bode Miller, the favorite in the men’s downhill, finished eighth Sunday. Shaun White, the dominant snowboarder of his generation, finished fourth in the halfpipe Tuesday. And now Davis, the clear favorite in the 1,000.

The speed that always seems to carry him in the last lap was nowhere to be found in Sochi. Davis said he’d have to watch film to see exactly what happened, but it looked like he had a power failure at the worst time possible. There was some talk of slow ice from other competitors, but everybody was skating on the same surface.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you what’s going on, what was wrong, but obviously I need to figure something out, and I have to do it pretty quick, or it’s going to be the same thing in the 1,500,’’ Davis said of Saturday’s race. “And that would be very, very, very, very bad.’’

He doesn’t sound like a guy who plans on retiring any time soon, though there has been outside speculation that he might. He has done a lot for his sport. Gone are the days when he was looked upon as being different, a curiosity, a black speedskater in a world dominated by whites. That went away a long time ago in Europe, where they just knew him as “Shani Davis, a skater from Chicago,’’ he said. Now he’s just a superstar skater who wants to keep going in circles.

“I love skating,’’ he said. “I love trying to prove not only to myself but to the world that I’m the best skater alive, I’m the fastest man out there. I’m going to continue to do that until my body doesn’t allow me to.’’

In the days leading up to the Games, Davis had said this was his time. Nobody had any reason to believe otherwise.

Forgive us for not setting our watches by it now.

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