February 14, 2006

Joey Cheek in action.


I'm a big fan of American speed skater Joey Cheek.  Have been for a while.  Like many others on the U.S. squad, such as Chad Hedrick, Derek Parra, and Jennifer Rodriguez, his skating career began with the other kind - the ones with wheels.  He switched to speed skating in 1995 when he found he preferred competing on ice.  It was a good decision:  he left Salt Lake with a bronze medal in the 1000m, despite the fact that he grew up in North Carolina, not exactly icy turf.   He's had a tough time since then with an injury that required surgery, and a lot of pain since then.

So I made it a point to get myself to Oval Lingotto for the men's 500m, which I thought might be his best event.  He was a dark horse favorite - not many people talking about him - but I had a hunch, and in this line of work, a well-researched hunch is as good as a mile.  His teammate, Casey FitzRandolph, an Olympic veteran, was the defending gold medallist in the event.  But I had a feeling it was Cheek's day.

I was right.  Surrounded by two good friends and a bunch of flag-waving Japanese fans who were there to root for world-record holder Joji Kato (I am now the proud owner of a small plastic Japanese flag -- I rather like it), I cheered Cheek as he flew past me, seeming to float across the ice at speeds as high as 35 miles per hour.

And despite the Japanese cheers, it was Cheek's day.  Even the Dutch - decked out in their usual orange attire, one of my favorite global fan bases to observe - gave their respect to the young American.  And now we should give him ours:  he announced afterward that he would be donating his $25,000 U.S. Olympic Committee gold medal check (yes, many athletes receive money from their national Olympic committee for a medal), to Right to Play, the non-profit organization dedicated to using sport for development, health, and global peace run by Norwegian speed skating great Johann Olay Koss.  It was Koss that inspired Cheek to get into skating - when he was 14, he saw him win three golds at Lillehammer and decided he wanted to do the same.

Cheek has two more events here in Torino - the 1,000m and the 1,500m.
And then he says he will retire to go to college.  I knew I liked Joey
Cheek for a reason.

Joey Cheek, on the right, warming up.

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