Originally created 02/10/02

Parra stuns Dutch with silver medal in 5,000 meters

KEARNS, Utah -- Derek Parra is having the time of his life.

His first child was born less than two months ago. He helped carry the tattered World Trade Center flag in the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Games. Now, he's an Olympic medalist.

Parra stunned the powerful Dutch speedskating team by winning a silver in the 5,000 meters Saturday, even holding the world record for 20 glorious minute before Jochem Uytdehaage took it away and claimed the gold.

"Today, I was looking at my life and feeling so thankful about what I have," Parra said. "As I was going out on the ice, I said to myself, "Hey, it's my first race at the Olympics. I'm just going to enjoy it."'

Did he ever. Parra set a blistering pace in the opening laps and never seemed to tire, holding his form right to the end.

As Parra finished, he crossed himself and pointed to the sky, engulfed by a wave of emotions. As he glided through the backstretch, he realized that he had set a world record.

"My grandfather died a couple of years ago. I thought about him," Parra said, tears welling in his eyes. "I thought about the people who died in the World Trade Center. All those emotions came to me."

Parra blew kisses to the crowd and waved his arms while the home-country crowd chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and the song "Unbelievable" blared from the speakers.

On the backstretch, he finally seemed to grasp the enormity of his accomplishment.

"Wow!" he said.

Parra also blew a kiss into the television cameras for his wife, Tiffany, who was jumping up and down on the sofa at their home in Orlando, Fla. She had put a "U-S-A" beret on their infant daughter, Mia Elizabeth, born on Dec. 14 just days before the U.S. trials.

Between caring for their newborn daughter and work responsibilities, Tiffany Parra couldn't be in Utah for her husband's big moment. She is planning for fly in for the 1,500 - thought to be Parra's best chance for a medal.

"She was punching the air like it was a Mike Tyson fight," said Parra, who chatted with his wife by cell phone shortly after the race. "That would have been pretty funny to see, I think."

Parra finished in 6 minutes, 17.98 seconds - beating his personal best time by more than 15 seconds and eclipsing Gianni Romme's former world record of 6:18.72.

The time didn't hold up on the fast ice of the Utah Olympic Oval, as Uytdehaage gave his orange-clad Dutch fans something to cheer about by easily beating Parra in 6:14.66 to win the gold.

Uytdehaage broke down in tears after crossing the line.

"It was such an amazing feeling," he said. "Why shouldn't I cry?"

The Dutch were expected to sweep the top three positions in the 5,000, even though Romme didn't even qualify for their team in that event.

Speedskating is a passion in the small, European nation - especially the long-distance races. But Uytdehaage was the only skater who came through for the Dutch.

Carl Verheijen finished sixth and Bob de Jong was 30th out of 32 skaters, burying his head in his hands as he crossed the line, totally exhausted.

Another unheralded skater, Germany's Jens Boden, took the bronze in 6:21.73. That was 15 seconds ahead of his former best time.

"I'm sure people back in Holland are reading their e-mail and saying, 'This can't be right,"' Parra said.

Parra's second-place finish capped a remarkable journey for the 31-year-old Mexican-American, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood of San Bernardino, Calif.

The Winter Olympics were the furthest thing from his mind - heck, he didn't even live in snow until he was 18, when he traveled to the East Coast to pursue an inline skating career.

Parra went on to become the most decorated American athlete at the 1995 Pan American Games with wheels under his feet. Still, when he realized that inline skating wasn't going to be added to the Summer Games anytime soon, he switched to the ice the following year to pursue his Olympic dreams.

Parra, who eats fig cookies the night before a race, endured a bitter disappointment at the Nagano Games four years ago.

Originally set to race in the 5,000, he was bumped from the field when international officials allowed Kazakhstan to fix its application form after the entry deadline had passed, putting a higher-ranked skater into the field instead of Parra.

He came back more determined than ever.

"What a complete turnaround," Parra said, shaking his head. "It just shows what you can do if you have faith, believe in yourself and have people behind you. Anything is possible. Anything."

Parra had never skated faster than 6:32.83 in the 5,000. But he put together six laps quicker than 30 seconds and didn't climb above 31 seconds until the final lap.

"I was waiting for him to tire. I just couldn't match his speed at any time in the race," said Canada's Dustin Molicki, who skated in the same pair with Parra. "He really deserves it. He works hard. It was an honor to race with him."

The diminutive Parra - at 5-foot-4, he is the shortest male on the American long-track team by a good 5 inches - was dwarfed by Uytdehaage and Boden as they walked to the podium.

Parra didn't mind a bit. His father and brother, wearing "Team Parra" sweat shirts, cheered the remarkable accomplishment. A larger group of family and friends is expected to be on hand for the 1,500 on Feb. 19.

"Who thought I would win a silver in the 5,000?" he asked. "Not too many people. I was disappointed to lose the world record, but I can't complain about being a silver medalist at the Olympics."

Parra's performance wasn't the only surprise for the home team. KC Boutiette of Tacoma, Wash., who led the inline-to-speedskating invasion that has bolstered the winter sport in America, finished fifth in 6:22.97 - nearly nine seconds better than his old U.S. record.

The other American in the race, Jondon Trevena of Fort Collins, Colo., finished 15th.

Parra and Boutiette got the Americans off to a rousing start in the Salt Lake City Games, where they hope to bring home more speedskating medals than ever.

Romme, the defending Olympic champion, took the day off, relaxing at his apartment in nearby Sandy. His only race is the 10,000 - he refused to watch the 5,000 on television.

"It is too painful for me," Romme said.


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