N.C. Native, Olympic Medalist Donates Bonus Win To Charity
Posted February 15, 2006
TURIN, Italy — Joey Cheek walked in with everyone expecting him to talk about winning an Olympic speedskating gold medal. Instead, he had something else on his mind.
The moderator immediately asked for questions. Cheek interrupted, explaining that he wanted to make a statement.
Did he ever.
The Olympic 500-meter champion from Greensboro, declared that he was giving away his $25,000 U.S. Olympic Committee bonus for winning the event to help children in the war-torn region of Darfur in Sudan.
"I wanted to make it meaningful," he said. "It's empowering to think of someone else."
Actually, Cheek came up with the idea long before he skated the two best races of his life Monday. His combined time was .65 seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Russia's Dmitry Dorofeyev -- an amazing margin in a furious sprint usually decided by hundredths of a second. South Korea's Lee Kang Seok took the bronze.
"I've been plotting this a little bit in my head," the American said.
Cheek stopped by the athletes' village office of Johann Olav Koss' group, Right To Play, hours before his race to read up on the charity that helps impoverished children. Koss won three golds at the 1994 Lillehammer Games and inspired Cheek to take up speedskating.
"I thought maybe I could walk a little in his rather large shoes," said Cheek, who met with Koss a few days ago.
Cheek challenged his sponsors to match his donation. He plans to visit the Darfur region, where some 180,000 people have died and 2 million forced to flee in a bitter conflict, and see how his money is helping.
"I have been blessed with competing in the Olympics," said Cheek, who recalled something his mother Chris told her two sons: "Not to have good intentions, but to do good things."
Before doing his best work off the ice, Cheek tore up the oval. He was the only skater to break 35 seconds -- and he did it in both his races, giving him a combined time of 1 minute, 9.76 seconds.
"It's miraculous," he said. "I'm kind of shocked that I skated that fast."
Cheek gave the United States its second speedskating gold medal of the Turin Games, adding to the one Chad Hedrick earned in the 5,000 on Saturday.
"That was awesome," teammate Casey FitzRandolph said. "He not only won, he blew everybody away."
Cheek followed FitzRandolph as the second consecutive U.S. champion in the 500. FitzRandolph won four years ago, but this time he nearly fell in his first race and finished 12th.
The other Americans faltered, too. Tucker Fredricks was 25th and Kip Carpenter, the 2002 bronze medalist, was 26th.
By finishing his first race nearly a half-second ahead of everyone, Cheek left little suspense about the outcome.
"He's incredible," Carpenter said. "He's the only guy who brought his 'A' game to this competition."
Cheek, a former inline skater, had greatly improved coming into the Olympics, winning his first major title at the world sprint championships last month.
"I knew I was in great shape, but there's so many amazing skaters here," he said. "I screwed up so many times over the years, but I've always tried to learn from what I did wrong."
With a gold medal added to the bronze he won in the 1,000 four years ago, Cheek has done everything he ever wanted in speedskating. He'll retire at the end of the season and head to college, where he plans to study economics.
Maybe now Harvard will give him a second look. The Ivy League school turned down his application, but the 26-year-old Cheek was understanding.
"I've been out of school for 10 years," he said. "They're probably not sure I can still read and write."
And don't be surprised to see Cheek's name on a political ballot down the road, either.
"He works harder than anyone," Fredricks said. "Everything he gets, he deserves."