Tagging Along for the Gold Hoopla

Special to The Times

TURIN, Italy -- Where does one stash a gold medal for safekeeping in the Olympic village?

Though a crowd of 50 is assembled at this lavish sponsor dinner after his medal ceremony to celebrate his dominance in the men's 500-meter speedskating race on Monday, this is the only reference Joey Cheek makes to his gold medal. He doesn't wear his newly acquired bling, but instead leaves it at the far end of the table protected from spills.

But when an Italian child shyly approaches for a picture, Joey, 26, happily drapes the medal over the kid's head and poses. He does the same for former Olympians Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair. Joey's mom, Chris, and brother, Michael, are beaming along with the other guests of Jet Set Sports. (His father wasn't able to accompany them to Turin.)

If ever there were a moment to indulge his ego, this would be it for the speedskater from North Carolina who now lives and trains in Park City, Utah. But Joey hardly mentions his accomplishment, and instead spends the evening discussing the companies that have pledged to match his $25,000 donation -- his gold-medal prize money -- to the children's sports charity Right to Play. He seems more interested in the conflict in Darfur than in skating accolades. After thanking us all for being there, he departs in a flurry of hugs.

You could call us Joey Cheek's entourage, but we aren't exactly what you'd expect. I have spent the last week at the Olympics with Cheek's girlfriend, Eleanor Collins, and her family. As a new member of Joey's circle, I've not only gotten to watch Joey skate but have also accompanied his family -- sometimes with police escorts -- through a dizzying series of pre-interview green rooms, daily meals and all of the parties attendant to a world-champion athlete. The experience has been a blur.

On the night of Joey's first race, we don our homemade "Fastest Cheeks on Ice" shirts. Joey is able to come into the stands to see Eleanor for the first time since New Year's, just before he wins the event. Immediately, his mother disappears into a crowd of reporters.

After the necessary doping test, Joey gives a news conference and a whir of handlers whisks us off to NBC studios, where Joey goes on the air with commentator Jim Lampley. From the control room we watch as Jim offers to help Joey get into college; Joey's mom crows, "I'll get my baby into North Carolina yet." In the hallway, Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC Sports, greets us and brings us into his office to chat. Joey tells him that he hums Doobie Brothers and Led Zeppelin tunes between races.

Hours after his race, Joey hasn't eaten. After leaving Ebersol's office, Joey ducks into the green room to inhale some pasta and runs into medal-winning snowboarders Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler, boards in hand. Someone calls back, "Get Hannah's gold!" and it is retrieved from a jacket on the floor as they whisk away. It seems carrying pouches should come with medals.

The celebration continues. A few minutes later, Joey is halfway through dinner at NBC but does a mass interview on a cellphone. In the hallway someone unexpectedly asks if he can drive a stick shift. Back in the cars, cellphones continue to ring. Because NBC has first rights, other TV reporters must prowl the gates to get an interview. At least five stations are lined up waiting for Joey in an outdoor studio near the Po River. Given the freezing temperatures, much of the entourage elopes to the party.

When we arrive at the USA house, a place reserved for athletes and their clans and under heavy watch, they open the gates at the mention of his name. Joey's mom exclaims, "This is quite a different reception from last time." At 1 a.m., Joey gives us all hugs and goes home to get some much-needed rest.

But not for long. The next morning, we are all in the green room for the "Today" show where Al Roker is saying hello to Joey. Picabo Street waits alongside, and Hannah and Gretchen pass by again.

As Eleanor and Joey exit the studio, they are taken to another interview, and then rushed up to the roof for yet another one. Joey goes home to nap, and we meet his family for dinner. The medal ceremony is at 7:30 Tuesday night, and Joey tosses his bouquet to Eleanor.

In spare moments, Joey checks his e-mail. It's flooded with nearly 300 messages from his website alone, but he tries to read as many as possible. Then he goes to the top of the Fiat building to drive a Ferrari -- a stick shift. He also checks his myspace account, where he finds nearly 50 new friend requests.

Back at the celebratory dinner, the Roots USA designers offer to make a custom leather satchel for the medal.

Joey politely takes their card and makes his way to the police escort. He says for now the medal will spend the night "under the pillow."

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