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Shani Davis is everywhere you look these days. Ads for Ralph Lauren and McDonald's. Promos for NBC. The cover of US magazine's Olympic edition.

After spending most of his illustrious career in anonymity – much of it self-imposed – the speed skater has emerged as one of the Sochi Olympics' biggest stars. And in what might be an even bigger surprise, he's enjoying every bit of it.

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"It's not like I ever didn't want to be the face of the Olympics. There were other athletes who had a higher profile," said Davis, the first African-American to win an individual gold at the Winter Olympics.

"I was a goodie in a vending machine behind eight other awesome snacks," Davis added, using an amusing, but apt, analogy. "Now people are enjoying me for who I am."

The timing couldn't be better. After winning the 1,000 meters in both Torino and Vancouver, Davis is poised to become the first U.S. man to win gold medals in the same event in three consecutive Olympics.

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He will be a heavy favorite to three-peat after winning the first three World Cups this season; he was third in the fourth event. Davis also won the 1,000 meters at the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships, and was first in both the 1,000 and 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials.

The men's 1,000 final is on Feb. 12 and the 1,500 final is on the 15th.

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Snowboarder Shaun White is also going for his third gold in a row, but the men's halfpipe is scheduled for the week after the 1,000-meter final.

"It's just more icing on the cake. Or putting the cherry on top of a sundae," Davis said of his pursuit of history. "For me, win or lose, I'm already a champion. A world-record holder.

"But there is something about going out there and having everything on the line," he said. "I'll be keeping in mind some of the sacrifices and generosity that people have had to get me where I am. I want to do my best not only for myself, but for them, and we'll win this race together."

It's that back story, along with his success, that makes Davis so appealing – and might have contributed to his aloofness in the past.

Davis, 31, grew up on from Chicago's South Side, a gritty area where dreams are luxuries few can afford. In the heyday of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, most kids Davis knew gravitated toward basketball.

But his mother signed her 6-year-old son up for speed skating, instead.

"Where I grew up, no one had even heard of speed skating," Davis said. "Chicago had Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, the Super Bowl Shuffle with the Bears, the Blackhawks. You can see why lot of kids in that area wanted to do basketball and football and things like that.

"But I walked to a different beat of a drum," he said. "I loved skating from the first day I put the blades on."

Two years after he started speed skating, Davis was winning regional competitions. By the time he was a teenager, he was one of the world's top speed skaters, traveling the globe for competitions.

"I loved that it took me out of the South Side of Chicago," Davis said. "It broadened my horizons."

But it hardened him, too. Barriers don't break on their own, and it takes someone with resolve as tough as steel to bring them down.

For the first four years he skated, Davis commuted from the South Side to the northern suburb of Evanston, a 45-minute trip each way – and that's on a good day. When he was 10, his mother moved them to the north side of the city, shortening Davis' trip to the rink but uprooting both of their lives.

He trains on his own, often without a coach. His refusal to participate in the team pursuit gave the impression he was only out for himself, and his feud with U.S. teammate Chad Hedrick at the 2006 Olympics only furthered the notion. He was guarded with the media to the point of being prickly.

Davis has shown a different side of himself before Sochi, however.

He is the focal point of a McDonald's campaign that allows fans to send well wishes to athletes, and is featured prominently in ads by Ralph Lauren, outfitter for the U.S. Olympic team. He has opened up in interviews, talking about his mother's sacrifices, his young son, even his sweet tooth

"Shani's got a wonderful personality, but he was very closed off for a long, long time," Apolo Anton Ohno, a two-time Olympic champion in short track and longtime teammate of Davis, told The Associated Press. "He is understanding what the total package for becoming a champion is all about. It's not just results. It's everything that comes with it."

But Davis insists he hasn't changed. This is how he's always been. It's just that with Ohno, Hedrick and some of the other big U.S. stars gone, there's more room to display his personality.

"My first and top-most priority is to perform," he said. "If I so happen to be the face of Olympics, great. But I want to win medals."

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