Derek Parra

Derek grew up in San Bernardino, CA, about an hour southeast of LA.  It was there that he spent his childhood in this predominantly Hispanic, economically strained neighborhood.  His parents split up when he was very young, and he and his brother were raised by their father, Gilbert, a corrections worker.  Early on, Derek was very accustomed to not having.

In early high school, he and his brother (Gilbert jr.) took to roller skating at the local Stardust Roller Rink.  The routine became $4 from his Dad, and a $3.75 admission fee…leaving Derek just 25 cents of pocket money for a three hour roller skating session.  Part of the rink’s nightly program was to hold two-lap races.  The winner’s prize was a “Coke ticket”.   It was primarily out of need to quench his own thirst that Derek began a lifetime of speed skating.  It wasn’t long before he had a pocket full of Coke tickets as well as the attention of the rink managers, George and Virginia Cottone.  The Cottone’s also happened to coach the rink’s speed skating team.  Derek was on his way.

Perhaps because of his size (Derek was always tiny – now, in a sport of 6’3” Dutch and Norwegian giants, he has risen to the top, regardless of this 5’4”, 140 lb frame) Derek was accustomed to having to try harder to keep up, so his work ethic was there from the very beginning.  His coach mentored him and pushed him along, introducing him to organized roller skate racing and coaching him through the ranks.  Many a time Derek would skate home from the rink (about 6 miles), often well after midnight, because he had no other transportation but was unwilling to give up skating.

Throughout high school Derek continued to develop as a promising young racer.  One summer he scraped together enough money to go to a training camp at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.  It was there that he met Virgil Dooley – “the coach” in the sport of roller skating.

Virgil encouraged Derek to go back to San Bernardino and focus on school, and when that was complete he was invited to come and train with his team.

Inspired by this meeting, AND by the atmosphere of the Olympic Training Center, Derek – in true Derek form – accelerated through high school, finished early and packed up to pursue Virgil.  He had now committed to himself that he wanted to become a national and perhaps world champion.   In what would be the first of many difficult “pack up and move” decisions to further his career as a skater he left California and moved to Florida to train under Virgil.  He was seventeen.  He showed up at the airport in Tampa, completely unannounced, and phoned Virgil – “I’m here and I’m ready”.

Vigil Dooley quickly recognized Derek’s unbending work ethic, and he began to groom Derek for national and international competition.

Now out on his own, and in the midst of a demanding physical training schedule, Derek struggled to make ends meet while continuing to chase his dream.  In an effort not to disrupt his daytime training schedule, and in hopes of getting a little more to eat, he took an early morning-shift job at McDonald’s.  He quickly learned McDonald’s transition  routine of discarding the leftover breakfast food in preparation for the later day burger menu.  Derek  happily volunteered to be the “garbage run” guy, and en route to the dumpster he would quietly scarf down all the left over McMuffins that he could.  It was his primary meal of the day.

Virgil then decided to head North to Maryland to pursue  the opening of a new skating rink. Once again, Derek packed up and followed so as to continue to work with this remarkable coach.

Not long thereafter, Virgil moved again, on to another rink, this time in Dover, Delaware.  Again, Derek packed up and moved to be with him.  It was there that Derek and Virgil settled in, and from 1990-1996 Derek developed into the most decorated skater in the history of the sport – numerous national and world championships followed.  Everything that could be won….was won.

Having won it all in roller skating Derek began to dream of an Olympic medal and he patiently waited as the roller skating powers-that-be repeatedly told him that in-line skating would get its day at the Olympic Games.  Then at age 26, he made the most difficult decision of his skating career, opting to retire from roller skating and switch to ice skating, all in pursuit of that medal.  Now an inline champion, he was earning a comfortable 40k per year at the top of this sport.  In ice skating, he would have to start over, at the bottom.  He would once again have to get used to “not having”.

At the urgings of KC Boutiette, a friend and former roller skating teammate who had pioneered the inline-to-ice transition in 1994, Derek decided to give the ice a try.  In 1996, he made his way to Milwaukee WI, home of the US National (ice) Speedskating Team and the site of the only covered long track rink in the US.  Derek quickly showed his champion ways, and within a few weeks of ice training, he captured two medals at the National Championship.  Ice skating heads began to turn his way.

Derek was invited to join the US National Team and he began to climb his way through the ranks of  US skaters.  Being unfamiliar with ice skating, he put his training program in the hands of the ice skating coaches.  He continued to make his way up the ice skating ladder, and ultimately, though barely, earned a spot on the 1998 US Olympic Team.  He was on his way to Nagano to compete in his first Olympics.

What promised to be a lifetime highlight turned bittersweet for Derek in Japan.  A “clerical error” was made in the convoluted entry process and Derek was informed that due to the restricted number of competitors allowed to participate in the Games, he would not be competing.  Though he did his best to put on a smile, Derek was bitterly disappointed.  So close, yet so far.

Derek returned to the states and continued his training, but his financial concerns grew and he struggled with the necessary commitment of “4 more years” to try again.    It was shortly thereafter that he learned of the Home Depot’s Olympic Job Opportunities Program (OJOP).  This program, designed in conjunction with the US Olympic Committee allows athletes to work part-time (20 hours) and get paid for full time work.  To Derek it was just what he needed to continue to chase his dream.

His routine became 3 hour morning workouts, followed by the afternoon of running up and down the aisles at Home Depot, then another 2-3 hour evening workout.  This became his way of life for the next few years and true to his hardworking form, he soon, and repeatedly, became HD’s “employee of the month”.

In 2000, the US Speedskating Team opened a new training facility in Salt Lake City and decided to relocate the team there to prepare for the upcoming Olympics.  Once again, Derek was faced with another difficult “pack up and move” life decision.

During this difficult time, Derek became frustrated with the typical “ice” speedskater training, feeling that it wasn’t bringing the most out of him.  He collaborated with Vigil Dooley, who had coached him to some many past championships on roller skates, and decided to introduce some of his former roller skating training methods into ice skating.  He decided to go with what had worked in the past.

The core of his training became a three times weekly training session, lasting up to three hours per session, where he performed a series of 32 different off-ice jumping exercises…all with a 40lb. weight vest on his back.  The effort soon paid off.

Still flying a bit under the radar on the world-speedskating scene, Derek had become the dominant US skater.  Then in February of 2001, exactly one year before the Olympics, he had his international break-out performance at the World Championships  (held in Salt Lake).  On the same ice where the Olympics were to be held the following year, Derek captured the silver medal in the 1500 meters and marked himself as “one to watch” with the Olympics looming on the horizon.

Now more fired up than ever, and with the Olympics being marked off in “days to go” instead of “years to go”, Derek could now see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

At the Olympics, Derek was not expected to be a factor in the 5000 meter event.  His best finish ever in this event was 9th, and even he was simply optimistic about a top 10 finish.   Even the speedskating television announcers had very little expectation of Derek on this day.  But this day would be special.

As the 12.5 laps race began, Derek was on world record pace.  As each lap ticked by Derek held strong and at the finish, what seemed impossible was now on the scoreboard, Derek had broken the world record and was leading the competition.

By days end Derek had been bumped out of the gold medal spot by a favored Dutch skater, but it was an unexpected silver medal that he was happy to settle for.  His best was yet to come and he knew it.

This unexpected medal set off a media frenzy, as “that little Mexican guy who thought he could…DID.”  Instantly Derek was being hailed as an Olympic hero.

Throughout the next week, as the 1500 meter competition drew nearer, Derek juggled media commitments of his new found “medal celebrity” and the growing pressure of the upcoming event.

When race day finally arrived, “good luck” greetings he received before the 5000 meters and turned to “Go get the gold Derek, you can do it” shouts.  The pressure was unreal.  On top of all the expectations, the Sports Illustrated issue published that day hailed “Parra goes for the Gold”.  It seemed everyone in the stadium had one.

But the pressure only added to the excitement, and as his turn to race drew nearer, in typical Derek fashion, he waved his hands and pumped the crowd into an absolute frenzy, literally seconds before going to the starting line.  This was to be his day and he appeared very ready to take it head on.

As the gun went off Derek exploded through the first 300 meter split in a fastest ever time of 23.5 seconds, he was on world record pace, but there was still a long way to go.  At the 700 meter split Derek was destroying the world record, anyone who knew anything about speedskating knew they were witnessing something special.  With one lap to go Derek was literally destroying the rest of the field and at the finish it was a previously inconceivable 1:43.95…a new World Record and an Olympic Gold Medal.

Q Sports