- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis represent the sound and fury, not to mention the general goofiness that engulfed the U.S. men’s long track speedskating team during the Winter Olympics. Joey Cheek remains an island of calmness, sanity and, not least of all, an extremely generous nature.

He is not the only skater who kept his wits about him. But maybe more than any athlete here, Cheek made the most of his moments. He seems to embrace the quaint notion of the Olympic spirit that existed before the overselling of underachievers and other forms of crass commercialism grabbed the podium.

Cheek, 26, is rumored to be the U.S. flag bearer for the closing ceremony. If they had one, he would get the Games’ humanitarian award. But it would not be a mere consolation prize. He won an Oscar, taking the gold medal in the 500 meters.

Then he funneled his $25,000 prize money, all of it, through the charity Right to Play, to help refugee children in Chad and the Darfur region of the Sudan.

A few days later in the 1,000 meters, Cheek finished second to Davis, who subsequently was shunned by sixth-place finisher Hedrick. That grabbed the headlines and created the messy spat everyone heard about. Buried in the story was Cheek dropping another $15,000, his silver medal winnings, into the bucket.

That’s $40,000, total, or about what a top speedskater makes in an entire year. But Cheek believes in the cause, and not just financially. He puts his mouth where his money is. As a newly-named official ambassador of Right to Play, he leaves next month for Zambia, where he will help teach kids about HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention.

“I’ve been doing this [competing] for a number of years, and very rarely do you get to talk about anything, especially something that’s very important to me,” he said yesterday. “After people sacrificed for me so I could be the best in the world, it was imperative for me to reach out and help somebody else out.”

Right to Play helps disadvantaged children through sports. After Cheek won the gold and announced his donation, its Web site received more than 90,000 hits, a jump from the usual 13,000 or so. More substantially, his contributions have grown into $300,000 after being matched by corporations and individuals.

The organization is headed by Norwegian Johan Olav Koss, who, coincidentally, was the dominant speedskater of the 1990s. Cheek approached Koss before the Olympics and said he wanted to help. He also promised to do something big.

“He’s a truly remarkable individual,” Koss said.

Cheek, a former in-line skater who won a bronze medal in 2002, said he became active after he was struck by the enormity of the situation. Years of travel and watching foreign news coverage exposed him to the genocide in Chad and Darfur, which reportedly has claimed more than 180,000 lives and displaced another 2 million.

“Saying, ‘Oh, I want to help people,’ is too general,” he said. “I wanted to focus on one specific aspect. I found it odd it was such a big story overseas and there was so little coverage here.”

A high school classmate of Wizards center Brendan Haywood in Greensboro, N.C., Cheek understands how to deal with the public and media. He is approachable and friendly, direct yet diplomatic. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. In other words, he seems to get it.

“This is a good story this week,” he said. “And in a couple of weeks there’s gonna be somebody else to talk about, somebody else to cover. In five years it’ll be a nice little side note. It’s not like somebody’s gonna want to talk to me about this, except for ‘What are you doing now?’ ”

Which is why, he said, “you’ve got to maximize your chances to talk about this.”

Cheek acknowledges balancing the two sides of the Olympics, the competition and the commercial. The sponsors “pay the bills and keep the lights on,” he said, providing the best coaching and training money can by. The key, he said, “is to stay focused on the things that are meaningful to you.”

Now that he has retired from competitive skating, Cheek is applying to some pricey and prestigious institutions of higher learning — Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Columbia. His first choice was Harvard but his early action application was rejected. That, however, was before he won a gold medal and became a philanthropist.

The small fortune Cheek gave away might have been useful financing his education, but he believes it is better spent on children who have lost a good portion of their childhoods. Besides, he said, good things should be coming his way.

“I live kind of frugally, but hopefully I’ll have some marketing opportunities,” he said.

Cheek’s charity work, communication skills and his future education mesh smartly together to provide the basis for something even bigger than an Olympic gold medal. He has mentioned that he might like to be president of the United States. It’s a long way off. But at one time, so was winning an Olympic gold medal.

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