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Breakthrough Win Tainted by Bitterness

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

One of a handful of black faces in the crowd was screaming for only one on the ice.

“He’s gotta smoke it on that last lap!” shouted Reginald Shuck. “He’s gotta smoke it!”

Shani Davis rounded the corner in front of his father, head down, giant blue Lycra legs pumping, smoking it, smoking it.

And, then, with one final ice-squeaking stride, he set these Olympics ablaze.

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Burning the history of no black athlete having won a Winter Olympic individual gold medal.

Burning the idea that the clubby, white-covered winter sports are not for people of color.

Burning all those, including teammates, who wanted him to fail.

Davis won the 1,000-meter race Saturday and, if you don’t think he did it alone, then you didn’t see how the Dutch fans and skaters embraced him before the Americans did.

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You didn’t see how Chad Hedrick, the beloved Texas skater knocked out of first place by Chicago’s Davis, didn’t even bother to congratulate him.

You didn’t see Davis point to the stands and exchange a knowing glance with his father during a victory lap that was filled with more relief than euphoria.

“A lot of people have tried to discourage Shani throughout his career,” Shuck said. “The support he should have gotten from people, he didn’t get. People made assumptions about him. People didn’t take him seriously.”

The father later smiled.

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“This would be vindication for him.”

And a sad stain for this story, which should be chronicling a barrier-breaking champion with simple admiration instead of grudges and grief.

This should be about a 23-year-old kid from Chicago’s South Side skating a path to a new world, not about the dirty emotional snowbank left in his wake.

But his country being America, that’s not how it works.

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Just listen to Martin Benning, a fan from skating-mad Netherlands who suddenly began pumping his arms back and forth while waiting for Davis to begin his race.

“This is black and white, black and white,” he said.

And, yes, vindication, first for Davis’ strategy of separating himself from a skating federation that he felt did not serve his best interests, in areas both racial and economic.

When was the last time an American gold-medal winner was so estranged from his own team, he asked that his biography be stricken from his federation’s website?

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When was the last time an American gold-medal winner not only didn’t train with his federation, but didn’t even live in the country, instead residing in Canada?

Teammates say it’s Davis’ fault.

“If he feels it’s him against the rest of world, then he’s the one who pitted himself against the rest of the world,” said Casey FitzRandolph, who finished ninth.

Davis said his teammates have no idea.

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“Things have been really tough for me.... It’s been a really, really rough road,” he said. “But I always knew, deep down inside, that I was a good skater.”

It’s also vindication for his involvement with his overprotective mother, Cherie, who runs his life to the point that skating officials are afraid to even discuss her for fear of a lawsuit.

Divorced from Shuck when Shani was an infant, Cherie is essentially her son’s coach, manager and bodyguard, famous for firing off nasty e-mails and threats to anyone who she perceives is treating him unfairly.

“I respect her and, honestly, if she wasn’t the way she was, I wouldn’t be able to handle some of the things that I go through with the sport,” Davis said.

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Finally, Saturday was vindication for what teammates consider the ultimate selfish act, bowing out of the team pursuit competition earlier in the week so he could focus on Saturday’s race.

Skating folks were upset because Davis’ absence led the team to a quarterfinal elimination. Hedrick was upset because it cost him a chance at what could have been, at the time, a step in a record-tying gold medal run.

Yet traditional speedskating is an intensely individual sport. In fact, this was the first year the Olympics have held a team event.

And, in 2002, another skating “teammate” filed a lawsuit claiming Davis was unfairly placed on the short-track Olympic team.

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“Chad wishes he could have motivated Shani to help him win the gold,” Shuck said. “But Shani has to take care of Shani. Because in the last Olympics, nobody took care of him.”

Acting like a big Texas jerk, Hedrick said, “Shani skated fast today, that’s all I have to say.”

Davis laughed.

“At least he said I skated fast,” he said.

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Indeed, he did, surging from one of the slowest starts to post the fastest finish, not only a blueprint for gold, but a metaphor for a career.

“The hardest thing for me, being an African American athlete, is just being in speedskating,” he said, later adding, “It just shows that even though the road is rough ... if you work hard enough, you’ll get your chance to do something great.”

Even if you have to do it alone. And even if your credibility is questioned until it is plated in gold.

“What the U.S. thinks about Shani Davis doesn’t matter,” said Erben Wennemars, the bronze medalist from the Netherlands. “He’s the Olympic champion. He’s right.”

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