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Mike Terry, Deseret News
At left, speed-skating coach and former Olympic gold medalist Derek Parra gives instructions to Michael Hubbs of Dallas during training session at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.

KEARNS — The woman on the phone was incredulous.

"So my daughter would actually learn to skate from a gold medalist?" she asked the teacher of the Utah Olympic Oval's Learn to Skate program.

Derek Parra smiles as he recounts the story, holding his hand to his ear like a telephone.

"Yes," he told her. "That's right."

Not that he volunteers this information. But Parra, the speed skater who won a gold medal in the 1,500-meter and a silver medal in the 5,000-meter race in the 2002 Olympics, was one of those feel-good stories and, well, people recognize Parra and his name.

The native Californian became the first Mexican-American to medal in an Olympic Winter Games. He

made the switch from in-line skating (where he was the most decorated athlete at the 1995 Pan-Am Games) to long-track speed skating in order to earn a trip to the Olympics.

In 2002 he was one of eight athletes chosen to carry the flag that hung above Ground Zero in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The new father then went out and won the 1,500-meter race in the very oval where he now teaches.

One of those students, 9-year-old Michael Shaw, rattles off his coach's accomplishments, even as he admits his goal is to be like another gold medalist — Apolo Anton Ohno.

"Just before he turned 5 he saw this sport on TV," said his mom Jill. "He watched Apolo and the Koreans and he just started begging to speed skate."

His parents enrolled him in the Oval's learn-to-skate program, which teaches kids the basics of ice skating. Michael said he endured two sessions of that before his parents "made my dream come true" and allowed him to sign up for the Oval's speed skating club.

"Ever since I saw Apolo do it, I've been wanting to be just like him," said Michael. "Basically it's really fun. You can go fast."

As for Parra, Michael said, "Oh, he's a great coach."

And then he shrugs and adds, "Well, he is an Olympic gold medalist."

Alessandra DiNardo, 12, starts practice with a hug and a high five from Parra, who is standing on the ice explaining the night's first drill.

"I was 7 when I stared," said DiNardo, who splits time between Florida and Utah.

She didn't fall in love with the sport right away.

"At the beginning, I was taught by a figure skater," she said smiling. "I was confused. I wasn't able to do the cross over like everybody else."

Then she skated with a former Korean National team coach and she began to enjoy speed skating.

"I like Derek better," she said glancing at her coach who is playing a game with the other athletes. "Having a coach who went to the Olympics and got a gold medal is really cool. He knows what to do. He's patient and he can teach us."

Asked if she thought it was hard for Parra, who coached the U.S. National team last year, to teach such inexperienced skaters, she shook her head.

"With the kind of attitude and the patience that Derek has, I don't think it's that hard for him," she said. Besides, she adds, these speed skaters may be smaller and slower right now, but they are nurturing the same dream as those athletes on the national team — to make and represent the United States at the Olympics.

"I want to make it to the Olympics, too," she said.

Parra is trying to expand the opportunities for speed skaters in Utah in his new role. He's partnered with a skating club in Park City and he hopes to include Ogden in a competition the Oval will host Feb. 24-26.

"There is a lot of training for very little competition," he said. "Our goal is just to get more kids involved in winter sports ... Competitions are a way to build the clubs."

The club has no age limits as he separates them into groups by skill and speed. He has students as young as Aspen Gardner, 7, who splits her ice time between figure skating and speed skating, and Michael Hubbs, a 28-year-old in-line skater from Texas, hoping to make the switch to ice.

"It's very different," said Hubbs. "I was kind of mad at first because it was hard."

Hubbs is hearing impaired and has to try and read Parra's lips as he instructs the class.

"He teaches me with gestures," said Hubbs, who imitates Parra's movements with some exaggeration and a grin.

Parra teaches two classes — the learn-to-skate program is Monday and Wednesday, and for those who aspire to more than a good workout, he offers the UOO Club, which meets on Tuesday and Thursday.

"I pay $45 a month for him to be coached by a gold medalist," said Jill Shaw. "You can't beat it. And he's really good with the kids. He really gets that age."

Parra said his primary hope is that the young people who come to him hoping to learn the sport also learn to have fun.

"Number one, I hope they have fun," he said, admitting he may be 40, but he's still very much a kid at heart. Then he proves this by engaging in a sliding contest with the kids where he skates as fast as he can and then slides on his back on the ice farther than any of the students.

Parra has a number of young people in the UOO club who've left in-line skating in hopes of being Olympians. Jamahl Thompson is a lanky 19-year-old from Florida who said he moved to Utah in July after watching Shani Davis win a gold medal in 2010.

"I saw Shani Davis," he said grinning. "I never knew about this sport until I watched the Olympics."

He's only been skating on ice for seven months, but he's in love with the sport.

"I love long track," he said. "I just love it."

In addition to transplants, native Utahns come to the Oval and the UOO skating club to realize their dreams.

Jerica Tandiman is doing just that this year as she skated in the U.S. National Championships last weekend.

"When the Oval first opened, my parents wanted me to do some kind of skating," said the West Jordan native who now attends Kearns High. "My older sister was a figure skater ... I didn't want to wear all the dresses and fancy clothes, so my parents said, 'OK, speed skating is for you.' Ever since then I've fallen in love with it."

Tandiman said she's living the dream to compete with the world's best in the sport that she loves.

"I'm just trying to get a feel for competing with people older than me," she said of the weekend's races, "seeing how I compare to them."

Parra understands what it means to have a dream come true. In fact, in a lot of ways, he's still realizing his own dreams.

"I love Utah," he said. "I love the people, the environment, the faith-based life ... and I get to teach kids to skate here in the venue where my dreams came true."

He said his success in his new role doesn't depend on how many medals elite athletes win as it did last year.

"It's different," he said. "I love coaching little kids because it's so much fun ... With high performance, I love that search for perfection ... Seeing an athlete make one small change and then being able to execute when that moment arrives is really satisfying."

While he tried to help Olympians attain the world's highest accolades, he attempts to instill a simpler message with the youth he now instructs.

"Be a good person," he said. "Do the right thing. Whatever you're doing in life, have fun and enjoy it."

Parra still pushes the skaters to test their limits, but he said he receives more in return from his young students.

"Every day we're just trying to be a little bit better," he said. "I want little Aspen to cross better and enjoy it more. They're so excited and so joyful. And they always let you know, 'Thanks coach, that was the best part of my day.'"