Parra, Derek: 1970—: Athlete
Derek Parra: 1970—: Athlete
When Derek Parra set a new world record in the men's 1,500-meter speedskating competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics, he also became the first Mexican-American to win a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Games. Parra was an unlikely victor in the sport of long-track speedskating, having tried it for the first time just six years before. The Southern California native became a favorite subject for sports writers at the Salt Lake Games, who found the story of his rise from the barrio appealing. Parra himself was pleased with his success. "If I can challenge any kid—doesn't matter if they're Mexican or Asian or black or white—to challenge themselves and reach for their dreams," the 31-year-old told San Bernardino Sun reporter Paul Oberjuerge, "that's more important than anything else."
Raced for Food
Parra grew up in San Bernardino's West Side neighborhood. His mother had departed when he was a toddler, and Parra's father worked as a prison guard to support him and his brother. As a kid, Parra and his older brother, Gilbert, loved to skate at the Stardust Roller Rink. Having no money for snacks, they began racing as a way to win food tickets from others. "We used to race for hot dogs and Cokes," Gilbert Parra told St. Petersburg Times columnist John Romano. Parra began competing in races using the new inline skates, though his father disapproved; he sometimes refused to drive him to meets, but changed his mind when others began telling him that they had seen his son on television.
As a teen, Parra met a Florida roller-skating coach named Virgil Dooley at a U.S. Olympic Committee training camp. Parra told Dooley that he would like to train with him after he finished high school. He then graduated early and bought a ticket to Tampa, and phoned the coach. "He said, 'Could I stay with you for a couple of days until I find a place to live?,'" Dooley told Romano in the St. Petersburg Times. "I said, 'Yeah, I guess that'll be all right.' He lived with us for seven years." While Parra trained with Dooley, he held various jobs to pay his expenses. At times he was so poor that he sometimes took food destined for the dumpster at the fast-food restaurant where he worked.
That single-mindedness helped make Parra a champion. He dominated inline skating for nearly a decade, winning 18 titles and setting world records for speed. He was also earning about $50,000 annually. At the 1995 Pan American Games, he was the most decorated athlete. He was keenly disappointed when inline skating was not chosen as a new Olympic sport for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Around this time, another inline skating champion, K.C. Boutiette, urged Parra to try ice skates. By switching to speed-skating, Parra might have a shot at the Olympics.
At a Glance . . .
Born March 15, 1970, in California; son of Gilbert Parra; married; wife's name, Tiffany; children: Mia Elizabeth.
Career: Became inline skating competitor; won several world titles; switched to speedskating on ice, 1996.
Awards: Winter Olympic Games, Gold medal, men's 1,500-speedskating race, 2002.
Addresses: Home— Orlando, FL. Office— c/o U.S. Speedskating, P.O. Box 450639, Westlake, OH 44145.
Parra had worn ice skates only once before in life. He tried it, and decided to stick with it, despite some initial difficulties. "It was very frustrating coming to the ice and being a nobody, especially after being the best in the world," he told Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter Kamon Simpson. "I knew I could do it, but the results weren't coming as fast as I wanted them." By 1998 and the Nagano Winter Games, Parra had made the U.S. men's team, but did not get a chance to compete because a higher-ranking skater showed up. He considered quitting, but his wife, Tiffany, urged him not to give up yet.
Trained on World's Fastest Ice
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."
Landmark Win—Both National and Personal
Parra's gold that day was the 20th medal for the U.S. Olympic team at the Salt Lake Games, a number that the U.S. Olympic officials had deemed its goal (the U.S. team would eventually finish with 34 in all). Parra was thrilled that his wife could be there in the stands to see it. "I was hoping I would do well," he told New York Times writer Edward Wong. At the starting line, he continued, "I saw her up in the stands, and I told her before the race that I love her. Out of all the crowd, I could see her face there. It was really uplifting, because we've been away for so long. We see each other only every two months."
Parra surprised many a few days later on February 22, when he finished in twelfth place in the 10,000-meter men's speedskating contest. "I was hoping to have a good race and finish on a good note, but I'm tired," he said at a press conference afterward. "The 10K, it was just way out of reach, even going into this race, more than the 5K was…. I just didn't feel technically sound and was not too efficient in the first 5,000 (of the 10,000), and I started fatiguing and overheated." Uytdehaage took another gold medal for his first-place finish in this event. Still, Parra was pleased at his overall performance, noting that a gold and silver each "are just beyond what was probably possible," a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service report by Charean Williams quoted him as saying. "It was something I dreamed, but to actually have it in my hand and realize the dream is unbelievable." Even his older brother was impressed. As Gilbert Parra told Romano, the St. Petersburg Times columnist, "When he was little, he wanted to be like his older brother. Now I want to be like him."
Parra was upbeat about his future plans, and admitted to some realistic goals regarding his future in the sport. "My wife and I talked about it, and if it's not something I can't make a living off of, then I'll just go to Orlando and have a normal job and be a normal father and husband," Williams quoted him as saying. He was also looking forward to paying a visit to his former school, Roosevelt Elementary, in San Bernardino, and speaking to students who use roller- or inline skates on the same streets he did. "Mexican-Americans can reach for their goals," Parra asserted to Oberjuerge in a report that appeared in the Daily News. "Growing up in Southern California, I would have never even dreamed of being in a Winter Olympics sport, the sport of giants." He was also proud to have bested other world-class skaters who had the luxury of training full-time because of generous government support. His win, he told the Grand Rapids Press, "shows that a working-class man can be at the top of the podium, or on the podium."
Austin American-Statesman, February 10, 2002, p. C1.
Capital Times (Madison, WI), February 20, 2002, p. 1C.
Daily News (Los Angeles), February 10, 2002.
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), February 20, 2002, p. C4.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 9, 2001; February 11, 2002; February 22, 2002.
New York Times, February 19, 2002; February 20, 2002; February 21, 2002.
St. Petersburg Times, February 20, 2002, p. 1C.
U.S. Speedskating, http://www.usspeedskating.org (February 27, 2002).
American speed skater
Derek Parra turned his back on his successful career as an inline skater to hit the ice in hopes of making the Olympic Games as a speed skater. After an awkward transition, he was good enough to qualify for the 1998 Olympics, but a technicality prevented him from competing. Parra came back in 2002 to win a gold and silver medal from the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, breaking a world record and becoming the first Mexican-American to win gold at a winter Games.
Parra was born in San Bernadino, California, and raised by his single father, who worked at a prison. He was an avid roller skater at the nearby Stardust Roller Rink, where Cokes were given to the fastest skaters. Life was tough for Gilbert Parra and his two sons. His father did not understand Parra's desire to skate, but finally came around after the Olympics. Parra credits his family, friends, and blue-collar background for his strength of character. His gold, he is quoted as saying in USA Today, "Shows that a working man can be on the podium."
Parra quickly switched from the Stardust rink to the inline racing circuit, and became a champion there. He was a three-time national champion, two-time overall world champion, two-time world-record holder, and won eighteen individual gold medals. At the 1995 PanAm Games, Parra survived a collision with the pace car during a 26-mile race and went on to place first in the event. He also took home four other golds, two silvers, and a bronze medal, becoming the most decorated athlete of the Games. He earned his living as an inline skater, about $50,000 per year.
Inline skating is not an Olympic sport, so Parra switched to the ice in 1996 with visions of competing in an Olympiad. He had a tough time adjusting to the ice. "I came from being number one in the world [as an in-line skater] to being beaten at first by girls that were twelve years old," he recalled in an interview with Vibrant Life. His first races on ice were forgettable, but by 1997 he won first place in the American Cup championships, and in 1998 he qualified as an alternate for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Ranked 41st in the world, Parra knew he was not a serious medal contender, but was excited at the chance to race.
Parra did not get his chance that year. The skater he had replaced decided to skate at the last minute, and Parra was bumped. After having traveled to Nagano and getting his hopes up, Parra felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under him. It was such a blow he almost retired. Instead of retiring, Parra moved to Utah to train, leaving his wife Tiffany behind. He worked in the floor and wall sales department at a Home Depot there, which has a flexible-job program for Olympians.
Parra's training regimen is rigorous, even when compared to other Olympic athletes. "I know it's for a purpose," Parra told Tom Weir in an interview with USA Today. "It's a confidence builder … knowing that I've suffered through that. I always come to the starting line knowing I have trained the hardest." At five-feet-fourinches tall, Parra is by far the shortest skater in a sport dominated by tall, lanky athletes. Their longer legs make for longer strides, which means Parra had to gain his edge by beating them with technique. He is known by his taller competitors as "the little man with the big strokes," according to writer Paul Oberjuerge in the Los Angeles Daily News. He has developed leg power sufficient to get him down the straightaways of the 400-meter oval with the same number of strokes as a taller skater. Parra spent just five weeks with his wife during her pregnancy, and was able to take just one week away from training to be with his her and their first child, Mia Elizabeth, after her birth in December 2001.
Parra's hard work paid off. He was one of eight Olympians chosen to carry the World Trade Center flag into the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Games, and was told by President George Bush, "You make us proud." Parra went on to skate the races of his life. He held the world record (6:17.98) for thirty minutes after competing in the men's 5,000-meter race, coming away with a silver medal in the event. A few days later, all eyes were on the shortest skater in the field as he took the ice to skate the 1,500-meter event. Before the race, he found his wife in the crowd and mouthed the words "I love you" to her. Then, he raced like never before, setting a world record (1:43.95) and beating his own fastest time by almost fifteen seconds. Parra's dynamic time earned him the gold medal in the event, and made him the first Mexican-American to win gold in the Winter Games. And although he knew he was not a medal contender for it, Parra raced in the grueling 10,000-meter event.
|1970||Born March 15 in San Bernadino, California|
|1995||Becomes most decorated athlete at the Pan-Am Games|
|1996||Switches to ice with Olympic hopes|
|1998||Qualifies as an alternate for Olympics|
|2002||Appears in Home Depot television commercial|
|2002||Sets world record in the 1,500-meter race and becomes first Mexican-American to win gold in a Winter Olympics|
Awards and Accomplishments
|pre-1996||Three-time national champion, two-time overall world champion, two-time world-record holder, 18 individual gold medals in inline skating|
|1996||45th place, World Cup championships|
|1997||Fourth place, U.S. Allrounds|
|1997||First place, American Cup championships|
|1998||43rd in 1,500-meter, 45th in 5,000-meter, World Cup championships|
|1998||Eighth place, Olympic trials|
|1999||34th in 1,500-meter, 27th in 5,000-meter, World Cup championships|
|1999||17th in 1,500-meter, 19th in 5,000-meter, World Single Distance|
|2000||First place, U.S. Allrounds|
|2000||17th in 1,500-meter, 28th in 5,000- and 10,000-meter, World Cup championships|
|2000||16th in 1,500-meter, 12th in 5,000-meter, 16th in 10,000-meter, World Single Distance|
|2000||Tenth in 500-meter, 15th in 1,500- and 5,000-meter, 14th overall, World Allrounds|
|2001||35th in 1,000-meter, 5th in 1,500-meter, and 16th in 5,000- and 10,000-meter, World Cup championships|
|2001||2nd in 1,500-meter, 15th in 5,000-meter, 12th in 10,000-meter, World Single Distance|
|2001||Seventh in 500- and 1,500-meter, 18th in 5,000-meter, 13th overall, World Allrounds|
|2001||Fifth place, U.S. Sprints|
|2002||First place, 1500-meter race, Salt Lake City Olympics|
|2002||Second place, 5000-meter race, Salt Lake City Olympics|
|2002||Third place, World Allrounds|
|2002||First place, 1,500-meter race, World Cup championship|
Despite his golden accomplishment and all the media attention that surrounded him, Parra maintained his humility during the Games, which became a focus of commentators and the media. Through it all, Parra let his emotions flow. "It shows what people can do," he told Paul Oberjuerge in the Los Angeles Daily News. "Anybody. If you have faith, if you believe in yourself, if you have people behind you that support you, anything in possible." He cried openly during his victory laps and at the medal ceremonies. Olympic gold also meant increased financial security for Parra and his family—his wife was barely able to afford to travel to see him race. Sponsorships, endorsements, and speeches by the skater likely replaced his Home Depot job. Parra continued to skate after his Olympic triumph. After losing the 500-meter race, he won the gold in the 1,500-meter event at the World Cup in Germany in November 2002.
Cazeneuve, Brian. "Scorecard." Sports Illustrated (February 19, 2002): 5.
Lambert, Pam. "Fellowship of the rings." People (March 11, 2002): 62.
Oberjuerge, Paul. "Parra excellence; San Bernadino speed skater captures silver." Daily News (February 10, 2002): N1.
"Parra captures 1,500-meter race." New York Times. (November 17, 2002): 11.
Sandomir, Richard. "Getting there via hardware and lumber." New York Times. (February 21, 2002): 2.
Weir, Tom. "Blue-collar Parra skates to surprising silver." People (March 11, 2002): 62.
Weir, Tom. "Parra doesn't want to come up short; U.S. speed skater stands tall with extra hard work." People (March 11, 2002): C7.
Wong, Edward. "Parra turns tables and zips to gold in 1,500." New York Times. (February 20, 2002): D1.
"Athlete profile: Derek Parra." U.S. Olympic Team Home Page. http://www.usolympicteam.com/athlete_profile/v_Parra.html (January 15, 2003).
"Derek Parra." U.S. Speedskating Home Page. http://www.usspeedskating.org/rosters/Parra.html (January 15, 2003).
"Latino community embraces Olympic champion." Latino Legends in Sports. http://www.latinosportslegends.com/2002/parra_Latino_community_embraces_him-101102.htm (January 15, 2003).
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez