KEARNS, Utah America's newest speed-skating sensation had a brutal wait Saturday and by the end of it was satisfied just to finish anywhere in the top three.
Joey Cheek, whose post-Olympic ambitions range from hosting his own show on MTV to being President, was the fastest of a deep U.S. pool of skaters in the men's 1000-meter race Saturday and earned the bronze medal in an American record time of one minute, 7.61 seconds. The Greensboro, N.C., native took nearly a full second off his previous best time in the 1000 and claimed America's 15th medal of the Salt Lake Games.
Gerald Van Velde and Jan Bos, both of the Netherlands, were first and second in the longest of the long-track sprint races, Van Velde winning the gold with a world record time of 1:07.18 and Bos taking the silver in 1:07.53.
"I almost didn't want to let myself think it was going to happen,'' Cheeks said of medaling after having to sit through two final races to see if he could hold on to third place. "I thought there was no way that was going to stand up. I knew I was skating a pretty decent time. It was a great race for me, but I didn't think it was going to happen.''
Then imagine how Van Velde must have felt.
The 30-year old had been dropped by his skating coach several years ago, quit skating competitively and started selling cars for a living. He returned to training against the advice of friends and qualified for his third Olympics, but was practically crushed last week when he was edged out of a medal in the 500-meter race by .02 seconds, finishing fourth in an Olympic race for the third time.
"Some people thought, fourth place, that's good, you're a good skater,'' said Van Velde, who shaved more than a second off his previous best Saturday. "But I wanted to have a medal. When the last race came, I knew I was at least third. I had a medal and I was very happy already.''
And he was impossible to catch, even on what was being called fast ice at the Utah Skating Oval.
The Olympic record was broken three times, while half of the 44 skaters set personal-best times. But nobody could match the time Van Velde set with seven two-man races still to go.
He did not get off to a spectacular start, posting the 11th-fastest time through 200 meters and was sitting third through the second split at 600 meters. But he closed strongly, skating the final 400 meters in .14 faster than anybody else.
"This is the ultimate crown on my career,'' said Van Velde. "After so many fourth places, this is so great. The Olympic title, such a fabulous world record, this is really unbelievable.
"It had to be that way, apparently.''
For a while it was uncertain whether it would work out Cheeks' way Saturday.
The last of four Americans in the event to skate, he posted the third-fastest time but had four of the best 1000-meter racers in the world still waiting their turns. None of them threatened the medal times, though, including gold-medal favorite Jeremy Wotherspoon, of Canada, who pulled up momentarily in the second turn and finished 13th.
"When I first put on ice skates, it wasn't to go to the Olympics, it was for something else to do,'' said Cheeks, who switched over from in-line skating six years ago. "But once I started advancing, this was definitely the goal. "Coming into this has been the most difficult three weeks of my life. I had so many doubts and hadn't had a good 1000 since the trials.
"At some point, I was shouting at myself in my head. I was like, don't give up now. And then I went out there and skated really good.'' Casey FitzRandolph and Kip Carpenter, who had won the gold and bronze in last week's 500-meter race, both barely missed getting back on the podium. While Carpenter finished fourth, .28 seconds behind Cheek, FitzRandolph was on world record pace and in first place through 200 and 600 meters, but faltered on the final lap and finished seventh.
American Nick Pearson was sixth.
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