Joey Cheek was 14 years old and sitting on his living room floor, his eyes glued to the TV broadcast of the 1994 Winter Olympics, when his life's mission became clear.
Norway's famed speedskater Johann Olav Koss was shattering one world record after another en route to winning three gold medals at the Lillehammer Games, and Cheek, a top junior inline skater at the time, turned to his mother and said, "That's what I want to do next."
Monday, Cheek fulfilled his dream of following in Koss's vaunted steps in more ways than one. The North Carolina native blistered the Lingotto Oval to win gold in the 500 meters. Then he held reporters' questions at bay at the start of his post-race news conference to announce that he was taking another cue from his idol and donating the $25,000 he would receive from the U.S. Olympic Committee for winning gold to the charitable organization Koss oversees, Right to Play, which uses sports and games as a tool for helping children in the most needy corners of the world.
Cheek said his donation would be earmarked specifically for children of the Darfur region in Sudan, where roughly 60,000 youngsters have been displaced, and he called on corporate sponsors of the Olympic Games to match his contribution.
"For me, the Olympics has been the greatest blessing," said Cheek, 26, who won bronze in the 1,000 at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. "If I retired yesterday, I'd have gotten everything in the world from speedskating and from competing in the Olympics. So for me, to walk away today with the gold medal is just amazing. And the best way I can say thanks that I can think of is to try and help somebody else."
Cheek, the defending world sprint champion, was among a handful of favorites. But he faced formidable competition from Japan's Joji Kato, the world record holder at the distance; Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada, a four-time World Cup winner at the distance; and Russia's Dmitry Dorofeyev.
Cheek skated a flawless first race, taking a shrewd line around the oval and keeping his frame tucked low throughout, which isn't easy for someone 6 feet 1. But even he couldn't believe the time that flashed on the scoreboard: 34.82 seconds, making him the only skater to beat 35 seconds.
That gave Cheek a lead of nearly 0.40 seconds heading into the second race, a margin unheard of in an event in which the outcome is typically settled by hundredths of a second.
Cheek attacked the second race with only a hint of restraint. Once again he was the only skater to break 35 seconds, finishing with a combined time of 69.76 seconds. Dorofeyev, the Russian, took silver (70.41), and South Korea's Kang Seok Lee took bronze (70.43).
Cheek threw his arms in the air when the scoreboard flashed his championship time, then grabbed an American flag and circled the ice as tears streamed down his face.