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Derek Parra Biography

Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further Information


American speed skater

Derek Parra

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.

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.

Sketch by Brenna Sanchez

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsSpeed Skating