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Shani Davis' drive for speedskating greatness fueled by wisdom of Walter Payton

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Shani Davis of the U.S. competes in the second heat of the men's 500-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Sochi, Russia
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Shani Davis of the U.S. competes in the second heat of the men's 500-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

SOCHI, Russia – When Shani Davis takes to the ice for his shot at Winter Olympic speedskating history on Wednesday, he will do so with the words of a Pro Football Hall of Famer ringing in his ears.

Davis never met the late Walter Payton, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, but as an 11-year-old growing up on the south side of Chicago, he gained some valuable life lessons after reading the Chicago Bears legend's life story. Payton's determination to strive for more despite reaching the top carried the strongest message.

Davis goes for his third straight Olympic 1000-meter long track title on Wednesday.

"The coolest thing about Walter Payton was his work ethic," said Davis, who also admires Payton's close relationship with his mother ("the same way I do").

"Working hard is kind of a blue-collar theme, like the Chicago Bears. The Bears were bullies. They would get out there in the cold weather, and he'd run the ball like crazy. And every play that Walter got hit, he would get up.

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"Get up and do something to make it better: That's what he really embraced throughout his life, even to his death," added Davis, an ambassador for the McDonald's #CheerstoSochi program. "There's a lot to admire about that. Those concepts have always stayed with me, right through my career."

Davis used to repeatedly run up steep hills in Chicago as a teenager for no other reason than Payton did it. His mother Cherie, who gave up endless hours of her time to support his dream of success, would stand halfway up to motivate him.

Who knows how much that training and the mind-strong messages of Payton drove Davis on, but here he is at a fourth Winter Games with an aim to add to his collection of four Olympic medals. He also has two silvers in the 1500.

A somewhat divisive figure in past years, Davis is selective with his press interviews and generally steers clear of the spotlight, but he makes no apology for doing things his own way. He is much loved in Chicago, where his tough and tenacious image fits in well.

For Walter Payton's son Jarrett, Davis admirably represents the working class of the Windy City in the same way his father did.

"It excites me that someone like Shani was able to be inspired by my dad," Jarrett Payton said in a telephone interview. "It makes me feel good because, although my dad is not here now, people still talk about him not just because he was a great football player but [also] because he was a great man.

"Shani is that special kind of athlete and character that we should all be striving for. The Olympics are watched all over the world, but right here [in Chicago] people will be supporting him more than anyone because he is one of us and we appreciate what he does to represent this city."

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Davis, now 31, used the 500 meters on Monday primarily as a warm-up. He finished 24th with his specialist disciplines of the 1000 and 1500 to come.

He will try to break the extraordinary dominance of the Dutch team, which have enjoyed a clean sweep of medals in both the 500 and 5000 and is hungry for more. Competing in the Netherlands over the years has given Davis a rare taste of the celebrity lifestyle, as the sport generates huge popularity there.

"It is like being a rock star," Davis said.

In truth, all that attention doesn't really suit him. Davis is down-to-earth and is perfectly happy that way. He just likes to win and will get another shot at doing so this week with lifelong ideals borrowed from a legend driving him down the track.

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