The gift of gold

Cheek gives bonus away

U.S. speed skater wins 500, pledges $25,000 to charity

Winter Olympics

February 14, 2006|By RANDY HARVEY | RANDY HARVEY,SUN REPORTER

TURIN, Italy -- Speed skater Joey Cheek of Greensboro, N.C., won the 500-meter race at the Winter Olympics, the second most impressive thing he did yesterday.

Appearing at the post-race news conference, he said: "I know you guys all want to do sweet stories about Hallmark and chocolates and butterflies and all that, but I have a pretty unique experience and a pretty unique opportunity here. So I'm going to take advantage of that while I can."

He spent the next five minutes talking about the $25,000 - a bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee for winning a gold medal - that he's donating to Right to Play. That is the charity founded in 1994 by Johann Olav Koss, a four-time speed skating gold medalist from Norway, to raise money for children's sports and physical fitness in developing countries.

Cheek, 26, thanked all the people who helped him over the years as an athlete, including family, friends, coaches and the USOC.

"And so," he said, "I've always felt that if I ever did something big like this, I wanted to be prepared to give something back."

He earmarked his donation specifically for a Right to Play camp in Chad for Sudanese refugees and said he plans to visit there within the next two months if possible.

Koss, reached by telephone in Turin, said that he met Cheek on Friday for coffee to discuss the organization but that he wasn't aware until he received a call earlier from a reporter who was at yesterday's news conference that the U.S. skater planned to donate money.

"It came as a surprise, incredibly," Koss said. "As a speed skater, you don't earn much money, and he's giving it away.

"I'm incredibly impressed by Joey, his personality and his leadership. He's taken our sport to the next level to contribute to children suffering from war and internal conflict. It's absolutely incredible what he's done today. I'm honored and humbled."

Cheek's mother, Chris, of Hilton Head, S.C., said her son didn't tell her about the donation but added that it didn't surprise her because her family always stressed helping others. She formerly worked for Catholic Charities before becoming a hotel manager to earn money to support her two sons' athletic careers. Her other son is an in-line skater.

"I'd rather hear about things like this than any of his medals," she said.

Not that she minded watching him win a gold medal at Oval Lingotto. He had a remarkable performance, skating his first 500 in 34.82 seconds, extremely fast for such a slow track. He led by more than four-tenths of a second over Russia's Dmitry Dorofeyev, a virtually insurmountable lead barring disaster.

Nothing of that sort occurred in the second 500. Cheek, who earlier this year won the world sprint championship, again had the fastest time, 34.94 for a combined 69.76. Dorofeyev finished second in 70.41. South Korea's Lee Kang Seok was third in 70.43.

"I don't know how I skated that fast," Cheek said. "I've always dreamt I would skate that fast."

But, he said, he didn't consider it that great an achievement. "It's a ridiculous thing," he said. "I skate around the ice in tights."

Others, however, were impressed with his performance."

"Normally, this race is won by hundredths of a second," said Koss, who was a spectator. "He won by more than sixth-tenths [.65] of a second. This was a crushing performance.

"He was so calm, so confident. He was there for a bigger purpose."

Cheek said he also will donate his $25,000 bonus from the 1,000 meters if he wins that race.

"For me, the Olympics have been the greatest blessing," he said. "If I retired yesterday, I would have gotten everything in the world from speed skating and competing in the Olympics. So for me to walk away today with a gold medal is amazing.

"And the best way for me to say thanks is to help somebody else."

randy.harvey@baltsun.com

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