A little love for Shani Davis, Julie Chu, and J.R. Celski, Diversity’s Champs at the Winter Olympics in Sochi


I don’t grouse anymore about the lack of diversity in the Winter Olympics and how it’s still essentially a whiteout.

That’s because despite the retirement of nine-team medalist Apolo Anton Ohno, there are still some truly great competitors like Shani Davis, and Asian Americans like J.R. Celski and Julie Chu, champions all.

This week, Davis, the first-ever African American individual medalist at the Winter Games, was trying to become an Olympic demi-god of sorts.

Had Davis won the 1,000 meters speed skating event Wednesday night in Sochi, he would have been the first man ever to win a third consecutive gold medal in a single Winter Olympics event.

That’s not just a diversity moment–that’s a flat-out “consistency of excellence” moment.

The three-peat of three-peats.

But it just didn’t happen for the 31-year-old from Chicago.

In a race against the clock, Davis finished with a time of 1:09:12.

It was good enough for 8th.

Had he finished just .73 seconds faster, he would have tied for the gold.

Had he finshed another .01 faster to shave off .74 seconds, he would have reached the objective to become the first ever, undisputed, single event, consecutive male three-peat gold medalist.

For that, you could prepare to be just an eyeblink faster, no?

When I see performances like Davis’, I can’t help but dwell on that margin of defeat.

In about the time you could say “Emil Guillermo,” Davis could have been an Olympic legacy.

But for that lousy three-fourths of a second, Davis comes home from Sochi an also-ran, not as the exalted.

Davis was hardly recognized in the U.S. before these games, although he’s generally revered around the globe–especially in places like the Netherlands, where speed skating is next to godliness, and Shani is hipper and better known than Pharrell Williams.

But Williams is at least getting lucky. On race day, Davis was not.

After the medal race, Davis was quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “I didn’t do the best I could possibly do; it wasn’t good enough…As a human being, I have to learn from that.”

As spectators and fans, maybe we need to learn from that too.

These star athletes aren’t machines. They’re human beings.

And when they act more human than we want them too, maybe that’s our reminder to be less fanatical and more human too. It leads us to the moral of our story: if you always do the best you can do, you can always find some victory in defeat.

But that’s so un-Tiger Mom of me, don’t you think?


I thought about the Tiger Mom approach, especially when it came to the two Asian Americans with the best chances for gold: Filipino American J.R. Celski, 23, a two-time bronze medalist in short-track speed skating, and Julie Chu, 31, a veteran Olympian with two silvers and a bronze in women’s hockey.

Celski skates on Saturday, Feb. 15 in the 1,000 meters short-track race. He skates again on Friday, Feb. 21, in the 500 meters, where he holds the world’s record, and later that day, the 5,000 meters relay, where he is part of the U.S. team ranked No.1 in the world.

That’s three chances for Olympic gold after a dismal showing last Monday, Feb. 10.

In the 1,500 meters, the same event he medaled in four years ago, Celski was in the lead with seven laps to go, but dropped back and let the eventual winner, Canada’s Charles Hamelin, go to the front.

Short-track is a little like watching greyhounds race on ice. But pace makes the race, and Hamelin took advantage of the slow times to hold on until the end. Celski was close and gave it one last lunge at the finish line.

He placed fourth.

Celski was .562 away from Bronze, .569 from Silver.

Gold? Only if he were faster by .639 seconds.

Less than a second? An eternity.

Celski knows you shave off hundredths of a second only with years of hard work.

He actually left his home and his family near Seattle at age 14 to train seriously in California.

His Filipino mom, Sue Celski, talked about that decision in this video and sounded so un-Tiger Mom-ish:

J.R. Celski and his mom talk about how just before the 2010 Vancouver games, Celski suffered a bad fall that cut his leg, nearly severing an artery that could have been life- threatening.

His rehab from the injury shows that he knows how to fight back from adversity. Celski will need all his resolve to be seen as the legitimate short-track heir to Ohno. But from the video, you also see how much his family’s support means to him.

Finally, there’s Julie Chu, the veteran Olympian. Wearing No.13 on the ice, Chu is known as a power-play killer and is the typical Asian American firster. A go-getter. A Harvard grad. The all-time leading scorer in NCAA women’s hockey history. First Asian American woman on the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

After two silvers and a bronze, a gold medal would be nice.

Chu will lead her team in the semi-final match against Canada on Monday, Feb. 17. If the U.S. can avenge a loss to Canada earlier this week in a prelude to the semis, it can try to win it all the following Thursday for the first time since 1998.

In this YouTube clip, Chu and her mom Miriam (who is half-Chinese and half-Puerto Rican from New York) talk about Julie’s motivation and how the family’s heritage applies:

OK, I know they’re selling soap here. But there’s some good old fashioned truth in those clips featuring the moms of Chu and Celski. Both seem like supportive, loving moms. Not the kind of stern taskmaster mom who typifies the current purveyor of Asian mom stereotypes, Amy Chua of Tiger Mom fame.

Chua’s new sequel espouses the “Triple Package,” a mix of traits that she says explains success and overachievement. The three traits summarized: A superiority complex, an insecurity about one’s worth, and the ability to focus and not give up when things get tough.

That makes for one tough cookie in a Darwinian world. But when I first heard Chua’s three, I wondered why omit some things on that list that are far more important? Why discount ideas such as compassion, kindness, and community? Even the super rich inevitably come back to that, if only for the tax break.

My other problem with Chua’s book is that she inadvertently creates new racial stereotypes by misusing data in a latter-day socio-biological way. Now she’s playing with fire, in the same way that some tried to say why blacks were better in sports. Here Chua tries to blunt those criticisms by showing her rainbow of success including Mormons, Jews, Chinese, Indians. But the successful blacks with the traits are Nigerians. And the successful Latinos are the Cubans? Sounds like it’s straight from the RNC HR manual, meant for replication in the Fortune 500.

Not my view of the world.

Instead of Chua, you can get better examples of championship parenting from the moms of our Asian American stars, like Celski and Chu.

From the clips, I’d say you immediately notice something missing from the “triple package” idea, namely an Olympic-size dose of mom’s love.

More than consolation, it’s the real gold, especially if one comes hundredths of a second short of an Olympic dream.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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