Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Parra carves out spot for himself
By Tim Keown
ESPN The Magazine
KEARNS, Utah -- The scene looked the way it's supposed to look in Gold Medal America.
The family was in the stands, hugging and bawling and staring in thrilled disbelief. The wife, the mom, the brother, the friends and former coaches. The father was front and center, holding an enormous flag, burying his head in it to wipe away his tears. They were there for Derek Parra, the speedskater who has become the feel-good story of these Winter Games.
Forget the Canadian figure skaters; this guy's the one.
Parra won the gold in the 1,500 meters Tuesday afternoon, and he broke the world record in the process. Actually, he did more than that -- he took the record at the start of the day (1:45.20) and snapped it over his knee. His time of 1:43.95 shocked even those who have come to expect numerical silliness out of the Olympic Oval.
Even taking into account the lighter-than-light-air times of the past week -- including Parra's silver-medal skate in the 5,000 meters -- this ranks as one of the greatest speedskating races of all time. You can debate the significance of that statement all you want, but for two weeks every four years, the world cares. To do it when everybody's looking counts double.
You can bet it's worth at least a few more commercials for Home Depot, where Parra has carved out a spot as America's most decorated floor-and-wall specialist.
"This was one of the greatest victories ever," said Parra's coach, Bart Schouten. "Skating to a world record by this much, against a field this good -- it ranks with any performance."
Before Tuesday, nobody had broken 1:45.00 over 1,500 meters of ice. Then Parra broke 1:44.00. It appeared to be good enough for Derek's father, Gilbert Parra, Sr., and that might be the biggest victory of all. At the very least, it brings Derek's legitimacy 360 degrees.
Gilbert has always been a tough sell. He didn't think much of inline skating, his son's previous pursuit, and he didn't think much of speedskating, either. Derek says his father was a "traditional sports guy," someone who believed you had to throw or catch or hit someone to be considered an athlete.
When your son's 5-foot-4, it's tough to hold athletic rebellion against him, but evidently Gilbert did.
"My father would come to watch me wrestle, wherever it was," Derek said. "But the inline skating rink was seven miles away and I had to get friends to take me and pick me up. He wouldn't go see it."
As Derek got better at inline skating, there were occasional television appearances in Southern California. He liked the rink because he got noticed and he got girls. This softened Gilbert some. The switch to speedskating created Olympic possibilities, and along with that came a breakthrough -- a few years ago, Gilbert made a trip to Japan to watch his son skate.
"We bonded there," Derek said. "That was a big moment. It took a long time."
The 1,500 world record was already broken by the time Parra took the ice in the fourth-to-last pairing. Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands broke it handily early in the afternoon, and the mark sat up there, tauntingly, for more than 90 minutes.
It was Uytdehaage, coincidentally, who won the 5,000 meters by ending Parra's 27-minute hold on the world record. "He took one from me, so I thought I'd take one from him."
Said Uytdehaage, "It sounds stupid, but I was really happy to see the time of Derek. These are the moments you have to enjoy."
Asked about the conditions that have produced five world records at the Olympic Oval, Parra said, "The altitude is a big part of it. The ice is just screaming right now."
Parra's wife, Tiffany, traveled from Florida to be with her husband Tuesday. She missed the 5,000-meter race 10 days ago because she couldn't take enough vacation to hit both, and Derek's best race is the 1,500.
"I don't know where I'm at emotionally right now," Parra said as he began his press conference. "You give up so much hoping for a moment like this, and then it happens &"
And they were all there for it, the whole family and all the friends. Even the big traditionalist; he was the one bawling into the flag in honor of his son, the skater.
Tim Keown writes for ESPN The Magazine.