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Cheek is kind of athlete we should spotlight

2/15/2006

TORINO, Italy -- Joey Cheek just went from ODB to BMOC.

The newest gold medal speedskater fretted half jokingly before these games about how a 26-year-old would be received when he switched from skater to student and enrolled in college this fall. He self-mockingly worried that he'd be the "dirty old man" around campus.

Now, Will Ferrell's got nothing on this guy. He's an Olympic champion after being the only 500-meter speedskater to break 70 seconds in two rounds of competition Monday, and he took his 15 seconds of fame to announce in a post-victory news conference that he will donate every penny of the $25,000 he wins from the USOC to refugees in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Cheek also called on his sponsors to match or beat that pledge.

"The best way to thank someone," he said, "is by helping someone else."

Here's your Olympic hero, America. Or maybe we should say, "Here's your boy, Red, White and Blue!"

Amazing how reporters like yours truly chase after the Bode Millers and Michelle Kwans of the world and stories like Cheek's get largely ignored. While Miller had to avoid the media, Cheek came to the pre-Olympic media summit in Colorado Springs and basically sat around waiting for reporters to find him. When a few trickled by, he spent as much time quizzing them about their lives as the scribes asked about his. He disclosed his goal of getting into Harvard, and suggested that it might mean more to him than winning a gold medal. How many pro athletes feel the same? (Besides Ryan Fitzpatrick.)

And it wasn't like Cheek lacked any of the usual myth-making credentials. He won a world championship, just like Miller. He's honest and eloquent and witty, just like Bode. (Cheek recently told USA Today that he planned to major in economics because "I heard that's what gets the girls.") He has a cool backstory, with parents who had little money but did tons of charity work anyway. Joey's mom gave her time to help the homeless and help child victims of abuse. Joey's brother, Michael, remembers waking up on Christmas morning to get a card announcing that an uncle had donated money in his name to a cause.

(To be fair, Miller has a family full of philanthropists and he himself donates time and money to the Special Olympics. But that didn't get many headlines, did it?)

Yet most Americans will only see Cheek's name for the first time now. And if he placed fourth or lower on Monday, most Americans would probably never have heard his name at all.

And it's not like only the media looked past him. Nike did not start a "Get Cheeky" campaign. Harvard, in its infinite wisdom, turned him down for early admission. (Full disclosure: The school did admit this writer. Another error.)

No, Cheek is not a "rebel" or "outspoken," like Miller or fellow speedskater Shani Davis. He's not a made-for-TV movie in the making, like Vonetta Flowers. He has no cool nickname, like "Flying Tomato" Shaun White, and has no matinee idol jaw line, like Chad Hedrick. Cheek describes himself as "geeky." He's an everyman, a guy you'd like to grab a beer with. That makes for good company, but not good ink.

Too bad.

But he won the nation's attention for a few minutes Monday because he moves really fast in circles on steroid-addled razor blades and now he's diverting that attention to this Web site: righttoplay.com.

Too good.

Maybe Harvard will now admit the guy. Maybe Nike will spend a bit more time on this particular client in the coming days. Maybe cameras will peel off of Rick Tocchet coverage and travel to Chad to cover Joey surveying the genocide there.

And maybe next time, in Vancouver, we'll all work harder to zero in on the athletes with intentions beyond winning and earning and sounding off. Hint: They'll say things like:

"My parents always instilled in my brother and I to be good people."

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

"I skate around ice in tights. It's not that big a deal."

Except it is. Cheek's gold medal weighs just as much as any won by the names you've seen in commercials or on NBC. And, thank goodness, his impact might be much heavier.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.