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Created: February 20, 2006
Latest Update: February 20, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/20/sports/olympics/20cheek.html. Original URL, consulted: February 20, 2006.
February 20, 2006
Cheek Makes the Most Out of Gold After Missing Out on Crimson
By KAREN CROUSE
Highlighting added by jeanne.
TURIN, Italy, Feb. 19 — The e-mail message arrived in Joey Cheek's in-box Dec. 15. The subject line read "Harvard admissions status." Cheek's heart started hammering against his chest wall. He stared at the subject field until the words ran together.
"I could guarantee you, I have never been that nervous for an Olympic race as I was for opening that," he said.
The 26-year-old Cheek, a long-track speedskater, had won a bronze medal in the 1,000 meters at the 2002 Olympics. His prospects for the 2006 Olympics were bright. He was bright. Hadn't he been reading The Wall Street Journal since he was in the sixth grade?
As Cheek sat with a finger crooked over the key that would reveal his future, it mattered little that he was an elite athlete. All he wanted to be was a Harvard man.
He wanted it so much he had applied for early admission. He wanted it so much he applied nowhere else. He wanted it so much he retook the SAT last June to prove he had not lost any brain cells since taking it a decade earlier, when he was squeezing in high school correspondence courses around practices and competitions.
Cheek clicked on the message. "Appreciate the effort," he read. "Obviously, we receive many great applicants." Two months later, the rest of his rejection is a blur.
"I was devastated," Cheek said. Then he smiled. It was Sunday afternoon, the first day of the second week of the XX Winter Olympics, and the whole world, it seemed, was laughing with Cheek, who has become the unofficial good-will ambassador of these Games, the breakout Gets-It guy.
It started when Cheek won a gold medal in the 500 meters. He announced he was donating his $25,000 United States Olympic Committee bonus to Right to Play, a humanitarian organization based in Toronto that is focused on helping disadvantaged children through sports. The next day, Right to Play's Web site, which had been averaging 14,000 hits a day during the previous two weeks, received 93,329.
Since Cheek spoke up, Gap, the United States clothier, has pledged $25,000, joining others in a money chain that has surpassed $300,000. And thanks to his silver-medal performance Saturday in the 1,000 meters, and another $15,000 bonus from the U.S.O.C., Cheek's total donation to Right to Play has reached $40,000.
That is roughly the amount a world-class speedskater can earn from his sport in a really good year."It's like a snowball," said Nancy Shea, spokeswoman for Right to Play. "It keeps rolling down the hill and getting bigger and bigger. He has really touched people."
Cheek is an antitoxin for those who have been fed a steady diet of showboating, sniping, self-absorbed Olympians. "To be that inspiration for people to do better in the world, I love that," said Johann Olav Koss, the four-time speedskating gold medalist from Norway, who is Cheek's childhood inspiration and the force behind Right to Play.
"It takes a special person to be able to do what Joey did; I think what makes him unique is he has a very large intellectual capacity," Koss added. "I would recruit him as my American C.E.O., no problem."
That's swell. Would Koss care to put that in writing and send it to the admissions department at Harvard? Koss laughed. "I have no problems doing that," he said.
When Koss's offer was relayed to him, Cheek, who had just finished sitting for one quick interview after another, appeared to blush through his TV makeup.
"That's really flattering," he said.
He said he had received 300 to 400 e-mail messages since winning the 500 meters.
Cheek, who will race in the 1,500 on Tuesday, has not heard from Harvard admissions, but several people professing to be Harvard alumni have reached out to him.
"Several of them have said, 'We would love to have you,' " Cheek said. He said others had said, "Don't sweat it because we went there and it's not that big a deal."
Cheek laughed. "A few have offered to do anything they can to help," he said. "I love it. If there was some way I could get in, I'd take it."
He paused to consider that last comment. He said cheerfully that by letting it be known he wanted to get in, he had probably hurt his chances. "In their defense," he added, referring to Harvard, "I wasn't a gold medalist in the fall when I applied. I was a bronze medalist."
But that is still an amazing accomplishment, right? "Yeah," Cheek replied. "But you know how it is in the U.S."
Cheek, who wants to study economics, has not been in a classroom since the age of 16. So he had that going against him. Then there was the math.
"There were 22,000 applicants for 1,600 spots," Cheek began, launching into a nonauthoritative, lighthearted riff on Harvard admission policies. "Forty percent are legacy. So we're down to 1,000. Half men, half women, so you're down to 500. Students in sports, you're down to 250. Half-minority, half blond-haired, blue-eyed, middle-class white boys, and you're finally at maybe 75."
Turning serious, Cheek added, "Think how many kids there are who are valedictorian with perfect SAT scores that deserve to go to Harvard, and you can understand why I didn't get in."
Cheek, who has since applied to other universities, said he had only himself to blame. "I worked hard at skating because I had to or I wouldn't have been any good," he said. "In school, I can't say that I always worked as hard as I'm capable of.
"At 26, I have the perspective to look at it now and say I hurt myself by doing that. I look at it like I learned my lesson."
What he learned goes beyond any college degree — that athleticism and altruism are two sides of the same gold medal.
"That's what I think is the beauty of this," Koss said. "These things, it's not possible to plan. You can never expect it to happen. When it does, it's fantastic."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company