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‘Hopeless’ Parra Earns Turin Spot

Times Staff Writer

It was a week to unburden himself of personal despair and overcome a crisis of confidence for Derek Parra, the multicultural and exuberant face of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Parra, a Mexican American from the desert in San Bernardino County, son of a prison guard who worked at Home Depot to help support his quest for Olympic glory, qualified for his third U.S. team Friday by finishing third in the men’s 1,500-meter competition of the 2006 U.S. Long Track Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Earlier in the week, Parra, 35, sat on a plastic garbage can and tearfully explained how his marriage was unraveling as he was aiming for something he wasn’t sure he wanted. He alleged his wife, Tiffany, had been unfaithful and he cried over the fact he hadn’t seen his 4-year-old daughter, Mia, since October. Tiffany Parra, who lives with Mia in Orlando, told a USA Today reporter she would not speak about the marriage. Parra said divorce papers had been filed.

So after a series of uninspiring results during the fall World Cup season, Parra came here with only one hope of returning to the Olympics -- to finish at least third in the 1,500. “And I did,” a tired-looking Parra said. “Now anything is possible.”

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There were other triumphs on this day.

Parra’s roommate, Chad Hedrick, 28, of Spring, Texas, a 50-time in-line world champion who didn’t take up speedskating until 2002, missed breaking his own world record by only two-hundredths of a second when he won the 1,500 in 1 minute 42.80 seconds to clinch a berth in the Turin Olympics.

Joey Cheek, 26, who already qualified for Turin in two other events, finished second in 1:45.13, with Parra crossing the line in 1:45.25. Shani Davis had already earned one of the four U.S. spots in the event based on his prequalifying performances at the World Cup.

Jennifer Rodriguez, a two-time Olympian who owns two bronze medals, won the women’s 1,500-meter race even though she already qualified through the World Cup. Rodriguez said the race was so tough, “I threw up afterward. I haven’t done that for a while.”

Chris Witty, a three-time Olympic medalist, finished second with Catherine Raney, also a two-time Olympian, third.

The most exciting moment for the women came when 19-year-old Maria Lamb of River Falls, Wis., finished fourth and qualified for her first Olympics. Lamb, whose first ice moments came as a figure skater, quickly learned she hated jumping but loved going fast.

After she won her first speedskating event six years ago, Lamb’s younger sister told her “you’re going to the Olympics,” Lamb said. “I told her no way. I guess I’ll have to call and let her know she was right.”

And there was one non-qualifier who’s still going to Turin. Nate Di Palma, 30, of Albuquerque, finished 15th in the 1,500 Friday. But early next week, Di Palma, whose paternal grandfather was born near Naples, Italy, will travel to Turin and compete in the Italian Olympic trials. “I feel like I’m one of the five best,” Di Palma said. “I really think I’ve got a chance.”

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A chance was something Parra felt was slipping away this fall. Parra’s coach, Bart Schouten, said, “I was bawling at the end. This has been very emotional. Derek has been hopeless and helpless.”

Parra skated in the second-to-last pair. About 600 meters into the skate, Parra skidded on his blade and scraped his palm across the ice. “I slid a little bit on the turn,” Parra said. “I just told myself, ‘Don’t panic.’ I was lucky I had time to recover.”

As he crossed the finish line, Parra gave a half-hearted fist pump. He held his emotions in check until he climbed down the stairs and hugged Schouten, Hedrick and assistant coach Scott Koons. “We all cried,” Hedrick said. “This is just a huge relief, a big burden off his shoulders,” Schouten said.

Parra seemed subdued Friday.

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“I knew that if I didn’t make the team I’d go to Florida, see my daughter and start the rest of my life,” Parra said.

“Now I just hope my mom can find a way to get my daughter to Turin.”


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