Davis, Hedrick off to a good start

Shani Davis (above) and Chad Hedrick bickered at the ’06 Turin Games, but the ground rules were set well in advance this year. Shani Davis (above) and Chad Hedrick bickered at the ’06 Turin Games, but the ground rules were set well in advance this year. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 20, 2010

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RICHMOND, British Columbia - They’d just won the gold and bronze medals in Wednesday’s 1,000-meter speedskating race at the Olympic oval and were on their way to the podium when Chad Hedrick saw the chance for a star-spangled duet. “Chad grabbed a flag and said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ’’ Shani Davis said. “I said, ‘OK.’ ’’

So they walked up with it together, each man grasping one end. It was a photo op markedly missing four years ago in Turin, where Hedrick and Davis had a rather public disagreement about whether Davis should have skated in the team pursuit. They may not be Best Friends Forever now, but the sniping has stopped.

“I think this shows how different it is,’’ said Hedrick. “People misread us, man. We just wanted to win. All that stuff that was before, that’s old news. We’re living our dream and we’re not going to let anything silly ruin it.’’

These Games already have been satisfying for both of them. Davis defended his crown in the 1,000, the first man in Olympic history to do it, and Hedrick made the podium in the least likely of his events. Today, they’re expected to go 1-2 in the 1,500 and get another chance to tote Old Glory together in what will be the final individual chance at a medal for both of them.

As in Turin, Davis won’t be skating in the pursuit. This time, though, that was made clear early and there’s no dispute about it. “The biggest thing that’s changed between 2006 and now is we have a different type of perception of what we want to accomplish,’’ said Davis. “There’s no confusion. The ground rules are laid and we’re sticking to what we’re going to do. It’s all good. A whole bunch of pluses there.’’

The problem last time was that the Olympic schedule put Davis into an awkward position. If he skated the pursuit, he might jeopardize his chances in the 1,000, where he could (and did) win the gold medal, the first by a black athlete in an individual event in the Winter Games. If he didn’t skate the pursuit, he’d likely deprive his teammates of a chance to make the podium and Hedrick of an opportunity to match Eric Heiden’s record five golds.

Heiden didn’t have that dilemma in 1980 because there was no pursuit, so he was free to focus on each race. After sitting on the sideline as a short-track team member in Salt Lake City in 2002, Davis believed he had the right to optimize his medal chances - and Heiden agreed. This time, there’s no argument about that.

“We felt our parade got rained on a little bit [in 2006],’’ said Hedrick. “We left with five medals between the two of us. We felt awesome about ourselves. We hope people will look at us and say, man, those guys are good athletes - instead of wondering who’s going to fight with whom.’’

The truth is, Davis and Hedrick essentially are the US men’s team here, at least the only two men favored to win medals. Four years ago, Hedrick earned one of each color while Davis grabbed a silver to go with his gold. In three races - the 1,000, 1,500, and 5,000 - they faced each other, as they’ll do here. A bit of competitive friction was inevitable, particularly between teammates who were making their on-ice debuts at Olympus.

“Coming to these Games the guys are in a much different place in their lives,’’ said US sprint coach Ryan Shimabukuro. “They cross over in some events but they skate for themselves and the USA. They’re looking to put 2006 behind and make good memories here.’’

Now that Hedrick and Davis have seven medals between them with at least a couple more likely to come, the vibe is smoother. “I’m just happy more than anything that that was then and this is now,’’ said Davis.

If there’s decidedly more comity now, it may be that their career paths are diverging. Davis, who’s still only 27, has at least one more Games in him if he cares to continue. Hedrick, who’s 32 and a new father, wasn’t even sure he wanted to compete this time. “After 2006 I had to figure out whether I wanted to be a speedskater any more,’’ he said. “I had to dig down deep to find the passion. I decided I did have four years left in me.’’

There was his title in the 5,000 to defend, which only Sweden’s Tomas Gustafson had managed. Maybe a gilded upgrade in the 10,000, where Hedrick had been second to Bob de Jong in Turin. And another shot at the gold in the 1,500 that Italy’s Enrico Fabris had snatched away from both him and Davis.

His reentry was rough - an 11th-place finish in the 5,000 that was more than 12 seconds off both Sven Kramer’s winning time and his own victorious effort in Turin. So Hedrick’s bronze in the 1,000, coming after he’d nearly been blown away in his pair by South Korea’s Mo Tae Bum, the 500-meter champion, was a delightful surprise. “This bronze medal,’’ he declared, “is like the 2006 gold.’’

For Davis, the 1,000 was his must-have. He was the defending champion, the world record-holder, and he’d been unbeaten at the distance all season. When he claimed the gold, he was beaming. “I was able to weather the storm,’’ he said. “I’m very satisfied with what I did.’’

Davis is still the world’s most marked man, the guy everybody wants to beat at any distance. Today the man most likely to beat him is Hedrick, the only rival who has conquered him all season in the metric mile. “I know it’ll be a big challenge but I’m looking forward to it,’’ said Davis, “because I love challenges.’’

Davis is more of a sprinter, Hedrick more of a distance man. The 1,500 is where they meet in the middle. Four years ago, the atmosphere was so charged that Hedrick said it was fortunate they weren’t paired together. “If that had happened,’’ he said then, “we would have killed each other.’’ Countered Davis: “I don’t agree with that.’’

Even if they’re skating side by side this afternoon, the mood is different. This time, they’re teammates who just happen to find themselves going for the same prize and if that means Uncle Sam ends up with a gold and a silver, it’s all good. They’ve learned how to share a flag. “Him and I,’’ said Hedrick, “are just proud to be Americans.’’