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Heart of Olympic Gold
Photo: MorgueFile
In 1994, 15-year-old Joey Cheek watched Johann Koss skate to three Olympic gold medals in speed skating. Cheek was already a nationally known figure in American in-line skating. ”I had already won a medal on the junior circuit.” Cheek told Listen, “but I thought what Koss did was fantastic. I wanted to try it.” So at 16, Cheek swapped rollerblades for ice skates, and set off to win Olympic Gold.

In 2006, after winning a gold and silver medal for speed skating at the Turin Winter Olympics, Cheek donated his Olympic winnings—$40,000—to Right To Play, a charity that helps children in underdeveloped countries participate in sports. He spent time in Africa, helping the cause to which he contributed. Then he got involved in another charity, Save Dafur, which is attempting to stop genocide in the Sudan.

How does speed skating tie into a part of the world where they can barely afford an indoor skating rink? Cheek’s road to Dafur started in Salt Lake City, during the 2002 Winter Olympics. “I was skating as well as I ever did, and I was miserable,” relates Cheek. Even winning a bronze medal did not make me feel better. I asked myself why I was putting myself through so much stress for something a little silly.”

Make no mistake Cheek still loved skating. “I love the lifestyle of being athletic. I love the competition. There is nothing like the feeling of moving when you are skating.” But “I realized it was just a phase.”

More Important Things

Cheek told Listen that after Salt Lake City he “realized that there were more important things than being rich and famous.” You had to do something with the fame to help others, not just succeed as an individual. So he looked for something to do with his fame. “I wanted to do something meaningful. I also wanted to work in Africa.”

He learned that Johan Koss, who inspired Cheek to become an ice skater, was running a charity called Right to Play. Cheek took a look at Right to Play, and liked what he saw. It gave kids living in unimaginable poverty a chance to play sports—not as cutthroat competition, but as a way to have fun. To be kids. Plus, it offered Joey Cheek a chance to work with these kids in Africa. So Joey made it his cause, too.

He also focused on enjoying skating again. Soon he was in his groove again, skating better than he had before. He felt the next Olympics would be his moment, and it all came together at Turin. In a 24-hour span, he won two medals, including a gold, and used his moment to draw attention to Right To Play. That got other athletes involved.  Joey inspired Canadian Gold Medallist Clara Hughes to donate $10,000 and raise an additional $400,000 for Right To Play.

Joey Cheek shows the power you gain when you put other people first.

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Written by Mark N. Lardas, copyright 2007, Mark N. Lardas, all rights reserved. Portion reprinted with permission from Listen, February 2007. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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