Other Free Encyclopedias » Brief Biographies » Biographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - Career » Derek Parra: 1970—: Athlete Biography - Raced For Food, Trained On World's Fastest Ice, Landmark Win—both National And Personal

Derek Parra: 1970—: Athlete - Trained On World's Fastest Ice

olympic uytdehaage speedskating medal

Parra made the 2002 Winter Olympics his goal. He trained in Milwaukee, and worked at a Home Depot store there. In late 2000, he moved to Kearns, Utah, to train. Kearns's newly constructed Olympic Oval was situated more than 4,700 feet above sea level, making it the world's highest-altitude speedskating track. The high altitude also gave the ice a particularly dense quality, which made it a much faster surface. Again, Parra found a job at a local Home Depot store, which was the sole participating corporate member of a United States Olympic Committee sponsorship project. Athletes who met qualifications would work at the store 20 hours, but be paid for 40, in exchange for allowing themselves to be featured in commercials. In all, 140 Olympians were participating in the Home Depot program, and Parra appeared in a television ad with Tristan Gale, the women's skeleton competitor. He was a favorite of customers and co-workers alike. "The way Derek runs around this place, it's no wonder he's a speedskater," supervisor Lara Berry told Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service writer Mike Bianchi. "If a customer buys 12 bags of concrete, he's the guy who volunteers to load it in the car for them."

In March of 2001 the Utah Olympic Oval was host to the world speedskating single-distance championships. Parra came in second in the 1,500-meter race, the first medal finish for a U.S. men's team member in six years. His performance added to the anticipation surrounding the coming Salt Lake Games, and Parra continued to train intensely. He barely returned to Florida in time for the birth of his daughter, Mia Elizabeth, on December 14, 2001, and had to leave again a few days later. The situation was a stressful one. Parra's wife worked and was still in college, and there were some tearful phone conversations. "We get in arguments because I'm not there," Parra explained to a Madison, Wisconsin paper, the Capital Times. "I can't help out, and that just makes it worse. There's plenty of times during the year where you ask yourself, 'Is it really worth it?' Then you go out and skate and have a good day, and you say, 'Yeah, it is.'"

When the 2002 Winter Olympic Games opened in Salt Lake City, Parra was considered a long shot for the first men's speedskating event the next day, the 5,000-meter race. He had never done well in longer races, a sport usually dominated by the Dutch and Scandinavian-country teams. Moreover, Parra, who liked to snack on Fig Newton cookies as a night-before race ritual, was shorter than most in the sport at just 5 feet, 3 and a half inches; most champion speedskaters are tall and long-legged, which gives them a clear physical advantage. But on February 9, Parra clocked in a finish of 6:17.98 to huge cheers from crowd. The time set a new world record in the sport—the first broken in the 2002 Games—but just a half-hour later, Dutch skater Jochem Uytdehaage crossed the finish line on what had been deemed the world's fastest ice, beating Parra by just by three seconds to take the gold.

Sportswriters began predicting that silver-medal-winner Parra might become the second U.S. speedskater in Olympic history to win three medals; the feat had not happened since Eric Heiden's five gold medals at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, New York. On February 19, before a crowd that included his wife, brother and father, King Harald V of Norway, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Parra took to the ice in Kearns for the 1,500-meter men's speedskating competition. He set a new world record, 1:43:95 seconds, and took the gold medal. He and his coach, Bart Schouten, took a victory lap around the Oval with the American flag. Not even silver-medal winner Uytdehaage was surprised by the outcome, the Dutch athlete told the Grand Rapids Press. Uytdehaage remarked that Parra's performance at the world championships the year before had made him a skater to watch. "This is not really a big surprise, because I have seen Derek come up and up and up," Uytdehaage told the Grand Rapids Press. "I knew Derek would skate very fast, and this may sound strange, but I was happy for him to break the record. It was an awesome skate."

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