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2002 Winter Olympics challenged, changed by 9/11

Published: Friday, Sept. 9 2011 6:04 p.m. MDT

Olympic gold medalist speedskater Derek Parra was one of the America athletes who carried the flag into the stadium and held it as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played.

"Walking onto that stage, to this day, was the most emotional and possibly spiritual experience of my life," Parra said. Expecting a roar from the 55,000 spectators, he said the silence made the flag's appearance even more poignant.

"Everyone in that stadium, if not the world, was feeling, I think, the same emotion. It was as if time stood still," Parra recalled. "The world stopped to watch that flag. We were all affected."

In the aftermath of 9/11, Parra said he considered quitting skating.

"Here we were, months out from the Games, but I felt almost ashamed that I was putting so much focus and value on going around in circles when people were pulling their loved ones out of the rubble," he said. "I didn't know what to do."

Back on the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns just days after the attacks, Parra said he decided he would skate his best as a way "to give those victims' families something to cheer about."

And throughout the Olympics, both on and off the ice, he said he felt the presence of those who had lost their lives on 9/11.

"Even during the Opening Ceremonies, when we were holding the flag at the end of the national anthem, a gust of wind came through and it was pulling the flag out of our hands," he said.

"It was the spirits of the victims there. They were telling me, 'We're with you, we're behind you.'"

Contributing: John Hollenhorst

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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