Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Family, Rumsfeld on hand for Parra's gold
KEARNS, Utah -- Derek Parra carried a different banner Tuesday, wrapping himself in a faded American flag that symbolized his unlikely journey and all the people who helped him reach the top of the Olympic medal stand.
Parra won a speedskating gold medal with a world record in the 1,500 meters, then grabbed the Stars and Stripes that belonged to his late grandfather for the victory lap.
"I know he was here today, watching out for Derek," said Gilbert Parra, the gold medalist's brother.
Derek Parra, a Mexican-American who grew up in Southern California, didn't even start ice skating until six years ago. Now, he's an improbable Winter Olympic champion, pushed on by family and friends wearing "Team Parra" sweatshirts.
"You give up so much, hoping for a moment like this, and it happens," Parra said, his voice cracking with emotion as he wiped his eyes.
His stunning time of 1 minute, 43.95 seconds was more than a second lower than the pre-Olympic mark of 1:45.20 held by South Korea's Lee Kyu-hyuk.
Parra earned his second medal of the games and gave the American long-track team its seventh medal overall, one short of its best performance ever.
In the opening ceremony, Parra was among the U.S. athletes who held the tattered flag that flew over the World Trade Center. His family had a more personal memento for "D.D." -- their nickname for him -- to carry this time.
Parra's grandfather, who died two years ago, was one of the first people he thought about after winning a surprising silver in the 5,000 on Feb. 9.
The flag is taller than the 5-foot-4 Parra, who clutched it with his coach, Bart Schouten, and skated around the ice accompanied by the U2 song, "Elevation."
Last summer, he worked at a Home Depot near the oval, assigned to the flooring and electrical departments. "Maybe I'll get moved to lumber now," he joked.
"I can't dunk, so I've got to skate," Parra said, mocking his stature as the shortest male skater on the American team.
Certainly, no one has a bigger heart.
The former inline skater from San Bernardino, Calif., knocked off Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands, who took gold in the 5,000 but settled for silver this time.
In the 5,000, Parra was the first skater to break the world record, only to have the Dutch skater lower the mark even more. This time, their roles were reversed -- Uytdehaage's time of 1:44.57 lasted only about an hour.
"It was not a big surprise," Uytdehaage said. "It was a perfect race for Derek."
Norway's Adne Sondral, the defending 1,500 champion, made a late charge to steal the bronze from American sprinter Joey Cheek, who was on a world-record pace until fading badly on the final lap.
Cheek, who won bronze in the 1,000, missed a second medal by just 0.08 seconds.
"It was a personal best by almost a second, so I don't think I gave anyone anything," Cheek said. "It hurt, but it was a blast."
Another U.S. skater, Nick Pearson, was sixth as Americans claimed half of the top six places, continuing their remarkable performance at the Utah Olympic Oval. The fourth American, J.P. Schilling, was 14th.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and King Harald V of Norway were among the fans in the sellout crowd applauding Parra's victory.
"I just got off the phone with the president. I told him there was a world record set and by an American," Rumsfeld said. "He was more than delighted."
Parra became the third American speedskater to win gold, joining Casey FitzRandolph and Chris Witty. The long-track team still has three events to match the eight medals won in 1980, when Eric Heiden dominated with five golds.
Tiffany Parra wasn't in the arena when her husband won his surprising silver in the 5,000. She watched on television from her parent's Florida home with their newborn daughter, Mia Elizabeth.
This time, Tiffany Parra was in the stands to see an even better performance by her husband, making so much racket on the temporary medal bleachers that she worried about falling through.
"I was a little more emotional than I thought I would be," she said. "I usually keep all that on the inside."
Parra, who eats Fig Newtons the night before every race, still has another event left, the 10,000. Though the Dutch usually dominate the sport's longest race, don't discount America's newest Olympic star.
"The bronze is next," his brother, Gilbert, said. "He deserves all three colors."
Uytdehaage, racing in the ninth of 24 pairs, became the first skater to break Lee's mark. A distance specialist, the Dutchman had a great finishing kick.
But the Americans are beating the Dutch at their own game, leading the medal count at the oval.
Parra, a ferocious trainer whose specialty is the 1,500, showed in the 5,000 that he had plenty of endurance. He was nearly 1½ seconds under Uytdehaage's pace heading into the final lap of the 1,500, and he sent the crowd into a frenzy when he crossed the finish line.
The Americans appeared set to pick up another medal when Cheek beat Parra's pace through 1,100 meters. But Cheek is a sprinter who does the 1,500 merely for fun, and it showed on the final lap.
His left hand touched the ice in a corner and he was nearly upright, exhausted, as he crossed the line. Sondral, skating in the same pair, barely beat the American and wound up with bronze in 1:45.26.