I realized they had my best interest at heart. I'm just blessed to have been through the trials and tribulations I went through at a young age, because it helped me become a better athlete. —U.S. Olympic speed skater Shani Davis
KEARNS — Shani Davis didn't understand the value of an education until it threatened to end his athletic opportunities.
"I'll be honest, I wasn't interested in school," said the four-time Olympian who owns four Olympic medals, numerous world titles and two world records (1,000 and 1,500 meters). "I was more interested in speedskating. But when speedskating almost ended because of my academics, then I realized there was more to life than speedskating. I had to focus; I had to apply myself both in athletics and academics."
At 16, he'd moved far from his Chicago home to Lake Placid, N.Y., so he could find out just how good a speedskater he could be. Instead of training twice a week, he was able to train two hours every day.
That is, until speedskating officials came to him and told him his 2.2 GPA wasn't good enough.
"It kept me off the development team because my grade point average wasn’t high enough," said Davis, who won the 1,000 and was second in the 1,500-meter race in this weekend's U.S. long track championships. "I had to really focus if I wanted to go back on the development team."
And he did. Desperately.
"It was rough," said one of the sport's most iconic athletes."When that was threatened to be taken away from me due to my lack of academics, I really had to just focus, buckle down and become a really good student."
He said he took the discipline that helped him excel on the ice and applied it to school. He cut back on video games and even spent a little less time training so he could study more.
"These were things I was always in control of but I never really cared for until one of the other things was in jeopardy," he said.
Davis quickly brought his grades up and was allowed to rejoin his U.S. teammates on the development team.
Interestingly, the 30-year-old juggles college studies with his Olympic aspirations and hopes to someday help young people — maybe even in the classroom.
"I love children a lot," he said. "I think I would like to be a teacher, and I think that would go well with coaching."
He said he's planning to work with a charitable foundation that would help youngsters have opportunities to pursue their passions. Davis' path to the Olympic podium began at a roller skating rink before he'd even entered kindergarten.
His mom took him roller skating on the weekends so they could spend time together and to keep her active son engaged in productive activities. Davis swam, ran and participated in karate when he was young as sports were nearly always the carrot to behave in class.
It wasn't until his mom had several people, including her boss, suggest enrolling Davis in speedskating that she started looking into the sport she knew nothing about. The closest club was in Evanston, an hour from Davis' south-side Chicago home.
He said he was smitten the moment he saw speedskaters at the Evanston ice rink.
"Right away it caught me," said Davis with a grin. "I loved it. I saw kids going really fast. I wanted to go fast. It caught my imagination at a really young age."
He said speedskating is especially good for a young person because it requires commitment and hard work.
"It's an outlet," he said of how it could benefit youths. "It's something that occupies them; it's positive; it's healthy; and it's challenging. It's something you don't pick up and that you're good at right away. You have to put time into it."
He worked hard — even in class. If he misbehaved in class, it might cut into his time on the ice.
But it wasn't until high school when speedskating officials threatened to end his dreams of international competition that he saw the real value of schoolwork.
Looking back on that difficult moment in his life, he feels only gratitude for the adults who saw what he couldn't.
"It was enough to wake me up," he said. "It was like an alarm clock I realized they had my best interest at heart. I'm just blessed to have been through the trials and tribulations I went through at a young age, because it helped me become a better athlete. It helped me organize, consolidate my time. It just made me more of an organized person."
Now 30, he relishes his time with fans, and he has a message for young athletes who'd rather train than study.
"I just tell them one hand washes the other," he said. "It's important to do both well. The unique thing about skating is that you don't get a scholarship to college for speedskating. But for some of the other sports like basketball, baseball and stuff like that, there have been a lot of talented athletes where I'm from, in Chicago, who didn't make it, and they're really talented, NBA-level talented, because academics got in their way. So you have to really make sure you prioritize what's important."