Olympic Champion Joey Cheek Sees Glory in Giving

Olympic champion speedskater Joey Cheek inspired several other athletes when he donated the money he won from the United States Olympic Committee to help refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan. Cheek says donating the money makes a greater impact on the world than his victories in speedskating.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Last month at the closing ceremonies of the Turin Olympics, U.S. speed skater Joey Cheek was chosen to carry the American flag. Not just because he won gold and silver, but because of what he did with the $40,000 the U.S. Olympic Committee gave him for his victories.

NORRIS: I've learned how news cycles work and I learned that there's a gold medalist tonight and tomorrow there's another gold medalist. So I can either take the time and discuss about how wonderful I feel, or I could use it for something productive.

BLOCK: And with that, Joey Cheek gave all his bonus money to an organization that helps children around the world. The group, called Right to Play, tries to promote health and peace through sport. Cheek earmarked his donations to help refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan.

Today he came into our studio in New York to explain why.

NORRIS: We're very blessed and also very selfish creatures as athletes. I spend all of my days focusing on how I can be better than everyone else in the world. And my family and friends have spent a lot of years supporting me. Obviously sport is hugely important to me 'cause it's what I love to do, it's my passion. But ultimately I think this is something that will make more of a difference in 10 years or 20 years. I hope. That's my intent. I mean, you never know.

BLOCK: You said blessed and selfish.

NORRIS: Yeah. Well we're, you know athletes in the U.S., when the Olympics come around we have everything we need. All of America makes sure that we're taken care of, and so in that sense we're blessed. Selfish because you're very focused on what you want to do. The better you do, usually you're better focused on yourself and your own performance, and so you don't get the opportunity to do things outside of that sphere very often.

BLOCK: How did you choose Darfur?

NORRIS: I travel a lot overseas for competitions. I've spent a lot of time in Asia and Europe. And the international coverage is a lot different than the footage you see on CNN or that other news station that starts with an F here. And I was amazed that I was traveling and seeing so much coverage on this genocide that was happening there. And that our government would declare it genocide, and yet when I came home, you know, there's no-one even knew, couldn't even tell you what Darfur was. So I just found it amazing, you know, hundreds of thousands, more than 200,000 people, we think, killed and no one knew about it. So I thought, well, no better time than the present to step up and try to raise some awareness at least.

BLOCK: And what do you figure the group that you're choosing to help out with that helps children through sports and play, how might that make a difference on the ground?

NORRIS: Well obviously there's critics 'cause, you know, you could say, it's easy to say, well people need food and medicines and shelter, which is obviously an extremely legitimate concern. But I think that children, in particular, at the early ages, the development is so critical then, if you don't help children develop as normally as possible, then they have, you know, even less chance of ever having a normal life. And children learn through playing so if you can, if you can teach them something useful about the world besides just sport and play, then that's a, it's a natural avenue to pursue.

BLOCK: Joey Cheek, you're 26 now. You're retiring from speed skating, and hoping to head off to college soon.

NORRIS: Hoping to head off to college.

BLOCK: What's your thinking about, where you might want to end up and what you might want to do?

NORRIS: Well I'm, I can't say for sure which school, but there's some great schools that I've been able to talk to and seem interested. So I'm excited about that. But I want to study economics. Use my head instead of my legs for a little while.

BLOCK: What do you figure replaces that, that adrenaline, those 34 seconds of pure adrenaline on the ice?

NORRIS: Well I'm not entirely sure how, what's going to replace it. I don't know, I'm fairly ambitious so whatever I set my sights on, it's usually, all right, well, how can I get to the top of this? So you know academics, I certainly hope to, to prove myself worthy and capable in an academic field and God willing, I'll be able to do it. But for me, skating, the best part of if was always, you know, you spend all these months and all these years training. And you go to the Olympics or whatever your event is that you're focused on, world championships. In long track it's just you and one other person against the clock. So you step to the line, and you look down the lane, and there's just the blocks, and it's just completely empty. And the crowd usually, whatever. Maybe there's 10 or 15, 20,000 people and they just all get quiet. And so for that brief moment, like the whole world just stops.

And you're all that exists in it. So this, I know, sounds kind of new age, kind of Zen-like. But for me, that was the, that was just the coolest thing. You know, that you've prepared as best you possibly can, and hopefully, you're getting ready to be the best in the world at something.

BLOCK: Is it a scary moment too?

NORRIS: Yeah, I'm usually kind of a nervous wreck, although I've gotten a lot better as I've gotten older. Something like, I always had a hard time eating days of competition and, you know, stomach's all butterflies and can't sleep the night before. But for me, once we usually skate back away from the line and then we turn around and come back, so they'll introduce you. And for me, that's like, all the, all that stuff just falls away. Once you get to that point, then there's no more nerves and no more fear.

BLOCK: Well, Joey Cheek, best of luck to you.

NORRIS: Thank you, and thanks for having me.

BLOCK: U.S. speed skater Joey Cheek. He plans to travel to Zambia this spring with the group Right to Play to talk about AIDS prevention.

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