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For Parra, the Games changed everything

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 9:33 p.m. MST

Ten years later, Olympic champion Derek Parra oversees all speedskating activities at the Olympic Oval in Kearns.

Lee Benson, deseret news

KEARNS — The Salt Lake Olympics of 2002 had an impact on and changed the lives of many people, but none any more than Derek Parra.

He came, he conquered, he stayed around, he conquered some more.

At 41, he's retired from competitive speedskating, but Parra is busier these days than that guy whose house he used to live in.

Well, maybe not busier than Mitt Romney — but just as busy.

If he's not wearing his hat as outreach youth programs director for the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, he's wearing his hat as speedskating coordinator and supervisor at the Olympic Oval in Kearns. And if he's not wearing either of those hats, he's helping steer athletes toward the next level as the local director for the Community Olympic Development Program.

All this because of a couple of weeks in 2002 when he became the unlikely face of the Salt Lake Games — a 5-foot-4, 140-pound Mexican-American speedskater from San Bernardino, Calif., who had spent the first half of his life never setting a foot on ice.

Diversity was the name of those Games. Speedskater Jennifer Rodriguez was the first Cuban-American ever to medal in a Winter Olympics. Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers was the first African-American to win a gold medal. Bobsledders Randy Jones and Garrett Hines, who collected silver, were the first African-American men to medal and figure skater Naomi Lang was the first Native American to compete in a Winter Olympics.

And then there was Parra, who got the diversity theme going on the first full day of competition, Feb. 9, 2002, when he shaved a full 15 seconds off his personal best at 5,000 meters to set a world record that lasted all of about 18 minutes before Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands lowered the world record yet again and changed the color of Parra's medal to silver.

Ten days later, just the opposite happened. In the 1,500-meter final on Feb. 19, Uytdehaage skated first in world record time only to have Parra come along moments later, set a world record of his own, knock the Dutchman from gold to silver, and become history's first Mexican-American gold medalist.

The transition to fame was fast and furious. Just weeks before, Parra had been paying the bills by working at Home Depot as part of that company's program to help aspiring Olympians.

As Parra puts it: "I was the Mexican-American kid in the electronics aisle. I could have set myself on fire and no one would have noticed. Then, the next thing I know, I'm going to the White House, I'm talking to Fortune 500 companies, everyone basically wanting to know how I got here from the electronics aisle."

What he told them was that you really can get there from anywhere. He went from growing up dirt poor in a predominantly Hispanic culture in the California desert to the top rung of the Winter Olympics.

In order to do that, he'd had to leave behind the sport that he ruled — inline roller skating — for one where, at 5-4, he practically disappeared in the shadows of the Dutch-Norwegian giants who dominated the ice.

"To me, they looked like NBA players," Parra says of the other speedskaters. "They were just gigantic."

"At the Olympics," he adds. "The Japanese girls were bigger than me."

To add to the degree of difficulty, he made the change from dry land to ice and summer to winter when he was 26.

After six years of getting the hang of it, he was a month from turning 32 when the Salt Lake Games came along. His first chance was his last chance.

He didn't set himself on fire, he set the oval on fire. When he won his silver medal nobody knew who he was. By the time he won his gold medal 10 days later, he was already the cover boy on Sports Illustrated.

His popularity has never waned and he has never left Utah, the place where it all began. For a couple of years, while he was still competing, he lived in the Deer Valley home of Mitt and Ann Romney. Mitt was in Massachusetts, where he was governor, and the house was sitting vacant. Parra had become close with the Romneys when Mitt was president of the organizing committee and he called to see if they knew of any houses available for rent in the Park City area.

"Why don't you stay in ours?" said Mitt.

Parra remembers that Ann Romney insisted that he first go by and check the place out.

He drove to the house, let himself in, looked around at the wall-to-wall opulence, and called Ann back.

"What do you think? Will it do for you?" she asked.

He didn't quite know how to answer. "Uh. Yeah." he finally managed.

That seems to sum up Derek Parra's life since the Olympics of '02. He didn't just find fame and fortune, he found friends, a career, an entire state that considers him family, and a home.

"You know, it doesn't make sense," he says. "How I wound up here, it really doesn't make sense. I realize that. I finally stopped trying to figure it out a few years ago. Now I just accept it."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com