ESPN Zone invited the club to watch the event in one of its upstairs suites, complete with reclining VIP chairs, free appetizers and plenty of national and local media attention. Sanders Hicks, who founded the Evanston Speedskating Club in 1966, taught and coached Mr. Davis, and has remained president of the club ever since, sat front-and-center in one of the VIP recliners to watch the race and soak up the festivities. All the television cameras shone their lights on him at one point or another during the evening.
Brian Hanover, Regional Marketing Director of ESPN Zone restaurants, said the restaurant was happy to host the club. They did the same thing four years ago when Mr. Davis skated in Turin, Italy, during the 2006 Winter Olympics. This year was much different. Four years ago, the race aired on tape delay and most everyone already knew the outcome, making the viewing party “more of a coronation” said Mr. Hanover. This year, the race aired live, making the atmosphere “very tense; very exciting,” he said.
Indeed, everyone appeared tense and focused on the large screen leading up to the race, and when the starting gun sounded, cheers erupted as dozens of Evanston skaters and supporters rocked back and forth in their seats, seeming to will additional speed into Mr. Davis’ skates. Nervous urging filled the room when Mr. Davis finished the opening lap off the leader’s pace and remained behind for the first 700 or 800 meters. But as he rounded the last turn exactly even with the first-place time, the cheers turned more hopeful and excited. When he crossed the finish line in first place, having secured the gold medal, the room erupted in sustained and joyous cheers. Hugs, smiles, laughs and more television camera lights followed.
As happy as everyone was to see Mr. Davis collect another accolade, most everyone was more anxious to talk about the club and skating than about Mr. Davis. George Babicz, manager of the ESSC and member since 1978, wearing a “the Dude Abides” t-shirt, said of the media attention, “I hate all this media stuff. We tolerate it every four years.” He took his turns in front of the cameras, answering questions about the club and Mr. Davis, but his focus remained on the club, teaching kids and skating.
The very next day, the club reconvened at Robert Crown for its regular Thursday night speed skating practice. Mr. Hicks, Mr. Babicz, and incoming club president John Rux (Mr. Hicks is retiring this year) were all there, focused on the ice. Despite the fact that Mr. Davis’ gold-medal-winning race had occurred less than 24 hours earlier, his name did not come up even once during the practice. Instead, the 20 to 25 skaters on the ice focused on improving their form and their speed, while those off the ice talked of upcoming tournaments, equipment and membership. The Club had no plans to gather to watch Mr. Davis compete in the 1,500-meter race that coming Saturday. Mr. Davis, who holds the world record at that distance, finished second to claim the silver medal in the 1,500.
Even though his name was not mentioned at Thursday’s practice, the Club understands and acknowledges how important Mr. Davis has been to the speed skating club, the Robert Crown Center and Evanston itself. Robert Lloyd, manager of the Center, said, “You can’t put it into words… he’s everything to us. Especially this year, given the economic situation, he gives us something to cheer for.” Mr. Davis shows up at the Center at times, said Mr. Lloyd, and “gravitates toward the kids” and teaches and instructs young skaters when on the ice.
Wale, a club member for 24 years, said that he has known Mr. Davis “since he first stepped on the ice,” said that there is “no way to put a value on what he’s meant to the club.” He described Mr. Davis as “great with kids” and very comfortable teaching and skating with youngsters. “He makes them feel like they can do what he’s done,” Wale added.
Chris Medard, an ETHS student who was once considered the heir apparent to Mr. Davis, said, “I skated with Shani. He was pretty fun, always joking and playing around. And always too fast.” Mr. Medard, once known as “the Flying Haitian,” quit skating two years ago to focus on basketball, but he admitted that watching Mr. Davis in the Olympics made him think about getting back out on the ice.
The ESSC skates every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Robert Crown Center. Mr. Rux said members range in age from 4 to 53, though during the practice a 57-year-old man approached Mr. Hicks to ask about joining, so the age range might increase soon. The Club prides itself on its diversity, not only in age but in race, income level, gender and special needs. The total cost of membership is about $600 per season, including ice time and association fees.