Former in-line ace Derek Parra is a speed skating revelation
This is an article from the Feb. 19, 2002 issue
Competing in Salt Lake is the easy part for Derek Parra, the
first Mexican-American to win a speed skating medal. Lowering
his personal best for the 5,000 meters by 15 seconds under the
glare of the Olympic flame on Feb. 9? No problem. Taking the
line later today as a favorite in the 1,500, the race in which
he took a silver medal at the worlds last year on the Utah
Olympic Oval? Simple stuff. Merely making it back to his second
Games at the elderly age of 31? An adventure.
Parra grew up spinning his wheels on roller skates in San
Bernardino, Calif., proudly accepting free Cokes from fellow
skaters for his victories as a 14-year-old. He won in-line world
titles at distances from 500 meters to 26.2 miles and took gold
in the marathon at the 1995 Pan Am Games in Mar del Plata,
Argentina, despite being hit by the pace car during the race.
Resigned to the fact that in-line skating wouldn't become part
of the Summer Olympics program, Parra took up long-track speed
skating in '96. "I was pretty ugly on the ice," he recalls. "I
couldn't beat anyone that first day." Three weeks later, bad
form notwithstanding, Parra finished third in two events, making
the U.S. national team. He barely qualified for the '98 Nagano
Games and was told by international officials that he would
skate in the 5,000 after a skater from Kazakhstan failed to
register. When the Kazakh team protested, skating officials
replaced Parra on the day of the race.
Parra tried again, moving to Park City two years ago and taking a
job as a floor and wall department salesman for Home Depot while
his wife, Tiffany, returned to Orlando with her parents. After
Tiffany became pregnant last March, the couple saw each other for
a cumulative five weeks before the baby, Mia Elizabeth, was born
in December. Last week, after a month of subpar performances,
Parra set a world record of 6:17.98 in the 5,000 and watched
Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands beat it less than half an
hour later, relegating him to a silver medal. "I guess my time
was up," Parra laughed after the race. "I worked a long time for
those 15 minutes of fame." --Brian Cazeneuve
Six Degrees of Raimo Helminen
The first thing you notice about Raimo Helminen--after you've
taken in the swatches of gray in his dark hair and the crags in
his face--is the way his teammates keep glancing over at him when
he speaks. Helminen is Team Finland's resident sage, a
37-year-old center and the first hockey player to take part in
six Olympics. "It has been a long trip," he says.
Now playing for his hometown, Tampere, in Finland's Elite League,
Helminen appeared in 117 games for three NHL teams between his
debut at the 1984 Games and his emergence as a key playmaker for
Finland's silver-medal-winning team in Calgary four years later.
He regards the Olympics as watershed events in his 20-year career
and recalls both the lows ("Albertville was not fun; I played
lousy," he says of a seventh-place finish in '92) and the highs,
which include the "great weather!" in Lillehammer in '94 and
Finland's bronze in '98, the debut Games for NHL players.
So does Helminen plan to go for a lucky seven in 2006? "This is
my last stop," he says. "I think." --Kostya Kennedy
As a spectator sport, cross-country skiing is an acquired taste.
The skiers go into the woods. An hour or two later they come out
of the woods. With the Olympic debut of the 1.5-kilometer sprint
today at Soldier Hollow, cross-country believes it has found a
vehicle that will keep TV viewers from reaching for the remote.
Though cross-country sprinting sounds like an oxymoron, it has
delivered to the sport the same jolt that short track is bringing
to speed skating. Sprints take barely three minutes. There are
four skiers to a heat, and all four understand basic geometry.
When they try to ski the same angles at the same time, there's a
lot of "rubbing," as U.S. sprinter Torin Koos calls the
NASCAR-like Lycra trading. Says Sindre Bergan, manager of
Norway's team, "There will be fights all day long."
That's the sizzle. There's some steak, too. Though it's short, it
is a ski race. As Italy's Fabio Maj, a relay silver medalist in
Nagano, says, "The legs are the most important." Still, the old
guard has yet to embrace the new format. Mart Siimann, president
of Estonia's Olympic committee, offered this assessment of the
sprint: "It's good for TV. Short--it's over. It's McDonald's."
The public has responded. Last year a sprint at the Royal Palace
in Stockholm drew 30,000 fans. Sprinters are convinced it's
merely a matter of time before billions and billions are served.
Talkin' 'bout a Revolution
The head of the International Skating Union said yesterday that
he wants to eliminate tainted judging by adding more judges. Now
this is what we call ice dancing.
The proposal by ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta would eliminate
the perfect score of 6.0 and increase the number of judges from
nine to 14. Only seven of the 14 scores, randomly chosen by
computer, would count, minimizing back-room score swapping
because judges wouldn't know whose votes would count. The
proposal, if approved by the ISU council, would not likely be
implemented before next fall. Under the new system judges would
award points for both individual elements and overall execution,
in effect quantifying the Games' most aesthetic event.
Real reform, however, will require more than changes in format.
Federations in judged sports need to be accountable to
independent review because, too often, the richest and most
powerful sports operate in a vacuum. Figure skating has cleaned
house in the past week, but a vacuum alone won't do everything
the sport needs. --B.C.
Q: What is the fastest sport in the Winter Olympics?
A: While the bullets fired from a biathlete's rifle travel at
777 mph, the fastest speed a human will attain at the Winter
Games will come in the men's single luge. Last November, Tony
Benshoof of the U.S. blasted down the track at Utah Olympic
Park, hitting a top speed of 91.8 mph. That exceeded his own
Guinness World Records mark of 86.8 mph, which he had set on the
same track a month earlier. So just why does the luge go so
fast? "The hard, fast, almost bump-free ice," says USA Luge
representative Jon Lundin. "Luge is such a finesse sport, and
with the ice as smooth as glass at Utah Olympic Park, it makes
for ideal conditions and maximum speeds." --Andrea Woo
Where are they now?
Alberto Tomba ALPINE SKIING
OLYMPIC HIGHLIGHTS: Double gold medalist in the slalom and giant
slalom in 1988
Tomba has always been a performer who plays to the back row.
Dubbed La Bomba by the press in his native Italy, he was a brash
and daring crowd pleaser on the slopes, once gushing, "I am the
new messiah of skiing!" He lived life in similarly ebullient
fashion, partying like a rock star throughout a 13-year career
that included 50 World Cup wins. Now 35 and retired since 1998,
Tomba lives in Monte Carlo but makes frequent trips to his native
Italy to visit his parents in the town of San Lazzaro di Savena,
near Bologna. He does promotional work for the sportswear company
Fila and is a spokesman for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. Some
things, however, have not gone La Bomba's way. He made headlines
recently for a tax-evasion case brought in Bologna for his
alleged failure to report $11 million in endorsement earnings.
(He was acquitted on Jan. 31.) His foray into acting has also
been a disappointment; two years ago he played a tough-guy cop in
Alex the Ram, a film that vanished from Italian theaters almost
as quickly as Tomba once barreled down mountainsides. These
Games, too, are not easy for Tomba; he competed in the last four
Winter Olympics, winning five medals. "It will be very emotional
to watch for the first time," Tomba says. "I miss the fans most
of all." --Mark Beech
for the record
Yesterday's winners, notable results and a look at the overall
the medal stand
LEADERS [Gold] [Silver] [Bronze] TOTAL
Germany 8 10 6 24
United States 4 7 7 18
Norway 8 6 0 14
Austria 1 3 9 13
Russia 4 5 3 12
Canada 2 1 5 8
France 3 3 1 7
Italy 3 2 2 7
Finland 3 2 1 6
Switzerland 3 1 2 6
The Netherlands 2 2 0 4
China 1 0 2 3
Bulgaria 0 1 2 3
Sweden 0 1 2 3
Australia 2 0 0 2
Spain 2 0 0 2
Croatia 1 1 0 2
South Korea 1 1 0 2
Estonia 1 0 1 2
Japan 0 1 1 2
Poland 0 1 1 2
Women's 4x7.5-km Relay
[Gold] GERMANY 1:27:55.0
[Silver] NORWAY 1:28:25.6
[Bronze] RUSSIA 1:29:19.7
[Gold] Alisa Camplin AUSTRALIA
[Silver] Veronica Brenner CANADA
[Bronze] Deidra Dionne CANADA
[Gold] Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat FRANCE
[Silver] Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh RUSSIA
[Bronze] Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz CANADA
[Gold] GERMANY 974.1 points
[Silver] FINLAND 974.0
[Bronze] SLOVENIA 946.3
The dream of a medal for the U.S. women's team is alive at The
Ice Sheet at Ogden. The U.S. (6-3) ended round-robin play with
an 11-2 win over Norway, the Americans' fourth straight win.
Defending gold medalist Canada (8-1) enters the medal round as
the top seed. The U.S. has earned a berth in the semifinals
The U.S. men's team powered to an 8-1 rout of Belarus. Bill
Guerin, John LeClair and Scott Young each scored two goals for
the U.S. (2-0-1). The Americans will face Germany (0-3) tomorrow
at 4 p.m. at the E Center in the quarterfinal round. In other
play Finland (2-1) shocked Russia 3-1 behind a strong
performance from goalie Jani Hurme, who stopped 25 of 26 shots.
Woe, Canada? Joe Nieuwendyk scored with 3:24 left to pull out a
3-3 tie for Canada against the Czech Republic. The struggling
Canadians (1-1-1) will play Finland in the quarters, while
Russia (1-1-1) and the Czech Republic (1-1-1) meet in a battle
of hockey heavyweights.
--Figure skater Irina Slutskaya, on the reception she expects
tonight at the Salt Lake Ice Center