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Orlando Sentinel

Parra, 1st Mexican-American To Win Winter Olympic Gold

By George Diaz

February 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

KEARNS, Utah -- Orlando speed skater Derek Parra glided into Olympic history again Tuesday by winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the 1,500-meters race at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Watched by 27 members of his family and friends gathered to share the moment, Parra, with tears running down his cheeks, grabbed an American flag and punched his fists in the air. There was so much to celebrate:

Parra won in a world-record time of 1 minute, 43.95 seconds, crushing the pre-Olympic record of 1:45.20 held by South Korea's Lee Kyu-hyuk. He becomes the first Mexican-American to win gold in the Winter Olympics (after winning a silver in the 5,000-meter race Feb. 9). He also becomes the first U.S. male speed skater to win two medals in a Winter Olympics since Eric Heiden in 1980.

And he's not quite finished.

Parra will lace up his skates again for the 10,000-meter race Friday.

He hopes to catch a break from his boss at a neighboring Home Depot, where Parra works as part of an Olympic job program

"Maybe I'll get moved to lumber now," he said. "Someone did say I came out of the woodwork.

"I can't dunk, so I've got to skate," Parra said, mocking his stature as the shortest male skater on the American team.

At 31, Parra has become the improbable hero of an Olympics consumed by a figure-skating scandal. He leads a patriotic parade of Americans who have now won 20 medals, equaling the mark set by the 1980 team that included Heiden's five gold medals.

"Big exclamation mark!" Parra said. "You dream about it and you dream and you hope that it happens . . . it's so hard to explain, It's a great, great feeling right now."

Those emotions were shared by bunches of "Team Parra" disciples scattered throughout the Utah Olympic Oval, which featured a surprise visit from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

He and the rest of the sellout crowd had to wait for awhile before commemorating Parra's brilliance. With three groups of skaters remaining after Parra set his record, Joey Cheek of the United States was on world-record pace until fading badly on the final lap. Norway's Adne Sondral, the defending Olympic champion paired with Cheek, snatched bronze, easing Parra's anxious wait.

Skating around the oval, Parra mouthed, "I love you" to his wife, Tiffany, who later joined him before the ceremony on the medals platform.

They smooched. He gave her flowers. They hugged.

It's been a while.

Tiffany Parra arrived from Orlando on Monday with her parents. She had not seen Derek since he was in Central Florida for six days in December to celebrate the birth of their daughter, Mia Elizabeth, and the holidays.

Focused on Olympic gold, Parra has lived in Park City to train on home ice while Tiffany Parra stayed in Orlando with her family. They plan on buying a home in Orlando after the World Cup season is over in March. He will travel to Europe shortly after the Olympics to complete the circuit.

Nothing in Europe is likely to compare with this day. Parra tried to take in all of it: The sound system blaring U2's "Elevation," a marching band playing "YMCA" and then, in celebration of Parra's Hispanic roots, "La Cucaracha" during the traditional victory lap.

Parra looked at his coach, Bart Schouten, imploring him to share the ride.

"You grab this flag!" Parra said. "We're going out there."

And so they skated together while those precious people -- some of whom Parra hadn't seen in years -- clutched their flags and their hearts in prideful reverence.

In section 108, cousin Rachel Clark, the city clerk in San Bernardino, Calif., snapped a picture as Derek waltzed by. She had led the group in a pre-race prayer earlier in the day.

In section 125, Parra's father, Gilbert, and his sons, Eric and Gilbert Jr., all dabbed tears away. Gilbert Jr. held a sign that read "Parra for President," recalling their childhood days in San Bernardino, where they would go to roller-skating rinks and race for sodas and hot dogs.

And in section 125 was Parra's mother, Maria McCracken. Hoarse and still shaking inside, she smiled at a snapshot that had popped into her head the night before.

There was her son, shooting out of the blocks like a bullet, heading for a target, never letting up.

"All I could think about is speed, just floating on ice," she said. "And I saw it. This is everything that I pictured and imagined."

She paused, savoring the memory.

"Today," she said, "was the best day of my life."

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