Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My New Hero ...

... is an Olympic athlete. But he's not a hero for the reasons you might imagine.


From today's New York Times:

Joey Cheek of the United States arrived at the starting line for the first of his two heats in the 500 meters Monday with a strategy, which was unheard of. Most long-track speedskaters will tell you that the shortest race on the Olympic program is over too soon to scheme for anything other than a fast start and a clean trip around the oval.

Cheek's design, it turned out, was grand. Bonnie Blair, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 500, was among those at the Oval Lingotto who marveled at how relaxed Cheek looked en route to winning the gold medal in a rout.

On the strength of two nearly flawless races, Cheek finished with a combined time of 1 minute 9.76 seconds, which was 0.65 faster than Dmitry Dorofeyev of Russia.

Casey FitzRandolph of the United States, the defending Olympic champion and one of Cheek's closest friends, stumbled a few meters after the start of his first race and could not make up the lost time, finishing 12th.

Cheek said he had "kind of been plotting a little bit in my head" since winning the World Sprint Championships last month. His plan came out in the news conference afterward, when he politely interrupted a moderator who had opened the floor for questions.

"Before we do that, can I make a statement?" Cheek said.

Speaking at nearly as fast a clip as he had just skated, Cheek said, "I have a pretty unique opportunity here so I'm going to take advantage of it while I can."

Noting that he had a human tailwind behind him of family, friends, coaches and countrymen during the 12 years he pursued his Olympic dream, Cheek said, "I always felt like if I ever did something big like this I wanted to be prepared to give something back."

He then announced he would donate his $25,000 gold medal bonus from the United States Olympic Committee to a humanitarian organization, Right to Play. Cheek said he would funnel his money to a program to help refugees in Chad.

"I thought about this for a while," Cheek said. "I won World Sprints and I thought: 'Jeez, I might actually have a shot of doing something great in the Olympics. If I do, I want to make it meaningful.' "

He observed the Olympic production in 2002 when he won a bronze medal in the 1,000 meters in Salt Lake City. He saw the attention paid to the stars on such a stage.

"I learned there's a gold medalist tonight," he said. "And tomorrow there's another gold medalist. So I can either take the time and just gush about how wonderful I feel or use it for something productive."

It is not a coincidence that Right to Play is the pet cause of another Olympic speedskater, the Norwegian superstar Johann Olav Koss. Winning three gold medals in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, Koss inspired Cheek, then a 14-year-old living in Greensboro, N.C., to switch from inline skating to speedskating.

Cheek's mother, Chris, recalled wandering into the living room one night during the Lillehammer Games while Koss was being profiled and Cheek saying, "Mom, that's what I want to do next."
Two years later, after cramming to finish high school early, Cheek moved to Calgary, Alberta, to train year-round. While there he lived in a couple's basement.

"I never hesitated over letting him go," Chris Cheek said. "If it's a dream they've got, you've got to let them go."

She added, "Joey's always been someone who picks something he wants to do and then figures out, how am I going to get there?"

Inspired by Koss's altruism, Cheek, 26, searched out the Right to Play office in the athletes' village shortly after settling into his room. He pored over the organization's literature and liked what he read. Through contacts he made there, Cheek was able to arrange to meet with Koss a few days ago for coffee, an experience Cheek called surreal.

"The things that he has done for other people has been an absolute inspiration for me," Cheek said. "Now I have an opportunity to do something similar. It's my hope that I can assist some people and maybe walk in his large shoes."

Before heading to the ice rink for his event Monday morning, Cheek was looking for the right frame of mind and he found it in the Right to Play office.

"I think on some level it is empowering to think of someone other than yourself," he said.
When he was introduced before his first heat, Cheek smiled broadly and waved to the crowd. He would say later that he never had felt more relaxed.

He posted a time of 34.82, which was 42-hundredths of a second faster than his closest challenger, Dorofeyev.

Only needing a time of 35.58 in his second heat to win, Cheek finished in 34.94. He was the only skater with times under 35 seconds.

Cheek admitted that his blueprint for success was not a sure thing. What if he had not skated well enough to have the news media hanging on his every word?

"A little risky, don't you think?" he said.

Cheek laughed and acknowledged it crossed his mind that he might be jinxing himself. "Yet I just wanted to be prepared if the stars aligned and God blessed me with the races I got," he said.

Win or lose, Cheek recognized that he was richly blessed.

"What I do is great fun," he said. "I've seen the entire world and I've met amazing friends. But it's honestly a pretty ridiculous thing. I mean I skate around on ice in tights, right?"


e said...

yeah. this is great. i love his last line especially. if only all of us had the...whatever it is...to utter that kind of statement about whatever it is we spend our time/energy/lives doing.

John McCollum said...

That's cool. And I'm with Erik. Perspective about one's career is in short supply these days.

Anonymous said...

I had heard the same story about Cheek. He's my hero of these games. If only the media would give him the time devoted to folks like Bode Miller.