GREENSBORO — Joey Cheek knew exactly what he wanted to do from the time he was 10 years old.
From the moment he joined the rollerblading team at the Skateland on North Church Street, he did and thought about little else but skating. He loved to train and race in a sport that gave no scholarships and little recognition to its champions.
“Being excellent at something really matters,” Cheek told the UNC-Greensboro commencement audience Friday morning. “When you hear these speeches, people often say what matters is to participate, to try your best. All these things are true.
“But the reason we have to say these at graduation speeches is that there’s so much evidence that being the best at something is incredibly awesome. It is worth the work you put in.”
Cheek is the speedskater with three Olympic medals. Since winning gold at the Turin Games in 2006, he has worked as a broadcaster, entrepreneur and humanitarian. His teammates picked him to carry the United States flag in the closing ceremony in 2006. Friday night, he will be inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in Raleigh.
Cheek also is a Greensboro native who grew up about 4 miles from the Greensboro Coliseum, where UNCG held its commencement. UNCG awarded nearly 2,700 degrees, making it the biggest graduating class in the university’s history.
In a 20-minute speech watched by his mother and thousands of friends and family members of the graduates, Cheek told a long story about a speedskating trip to Butte, Montana, and mocked himself at times.
Cheek admitted that he was a bit nervous about the prospect of having to entertain and enlighten a commencement crowd of “people who already know everything — 22-year-old college graduates.”
But Cheek said he thought the graduates could benefit from the words of advice from someone who had known real pain and anxiety.
“You want a (speaker) who spent his formative years, a lot of his teens and well into his 20s wearing full-bodied spandex tights for a living,” Cheek deadpanned. “And you’re in luck.”
But much of his talk was serious.
Cheek told the graduates that they’ll know when they’ve found the thing in which they’ll excel.
“The thing that you’re meant to do is the thing you wake up thinking about,” Cheek said. “It’s the thing your mind wanders to when no one else is around. It’s the thing you think about when you’re in the shower washing your hair.”
Excellence does matter, Cheek said.
Though Cheek trained for hundreds of hours for only four minutes of racing time at the Olympics, he knew that the world would turn its collective eyes to him if he won gold. This attention would be brief — Cheek said the gold medal spotlight dimmed after only about a week — but he told the commencement audience he intended to take full advantage of it.
His travels around the world as a speedskater gave him an appreciation of the world far beyond Greensboro. And he was troubled by media reports of the catastrophe unfolding in Sudan.
After he won gold and with the world watching, Cheek announced that he would donate his Olympic bonus to Right to Play, a humanitarian group that works with children around the world. Cheek challenged others — his fellow athletes, Olympic sponsors, the people of Greensboro when they held a welcome-home parade for him — to give as well. Many came through.
“I did work hard, and I did deserve the success I had on the field of play, …” Cheek said. “But winning is not the entire story. I’ve been blessed by fortune or fate or God, and that gives me obligation.
“I decided the world I want to live in is this: If you’re powerful, if you’re wise, if you’re bold, if you’re brave, you help others achieve the same thing.”