KEARNS, Utah — It's probably just as well that Derek Parra's success in World Cup races this season enabled him to secure a berth on the U.S. Olympic long-track speedskating team before the trials began Tuesday at the Olympic Oval.
Because if Parra had needed to skate the races of his life this week, his legs and lungs might not have let him.
Parra, a San Bernardino native who has become a nomad while training for the Games, went nearly two days without sleeping after his daughter, Mia Elizabeth, was born Friday. Parra flew to Orlando to be with his wife, Tiffany, and to spend time cradling the couple's first child during her first few hours on the planet. It's an experience he wouldn't have missed for anything--but he paid for it the last few days after returning to the higher altitude here.
"I skated Monday and couldn't catch my breath," said Parra, who hopes to add a spot in the 1,000 to the 1,500 berth he has already earned. "Today, I was just hoping to make it through."
He made it through in splendid fashion. Parra recorded a career-best time of 35.88 seconds in the 500, the fifth-fastest time among the 32 skaters, and was clocked in 1:09.04 in finishing fourth in the 1,000. The men and women will each race the 500 and 1,000 twice, and their times at each distance will be added. The top three in each distance will earn Olympic spots, joining other U.S. skaters who have already qualified through World Cup success.
The 1,500 will be contested only once, as will the women's 3,000 and 5,000 and the men's 5,000 and 10,000. The U.S. can send four skaters in the men's and women's 1,500 but can send only three in each of the longer races. The top three finishers at those distances will go to the Olympics if they meet the qualifying times. The U.S. can send 10 men and 10 women to the Games.
Joey Cheek of Greensboro, N.C., like Parra an inline skater who made the transition to the ice, recorded the fastest times in Tuesday's 500 and 1,000, at 34.73 seconds and 1:07.98, respectively. Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami, who has clinched a berth in the 1,000 and 1,500 because of her strong World Cup performances, took a step toward earning a place in the 500 by recording the top time, 38.20.
Chris Witty, who has struggled this season but secured an Olympic berth in the 1,000, was second in Tuesday's 500 with a time of 38.41 seconds. She came back to skate the fastest time in the 1,000--1:16.18.
"I didn't have the speed," said Witty, one of only nine U.S. athletes who has competed in the Summer and Winter Games. "I was more tired than I thought I'd be."
Parra knows all about tired. But he will gladly live with circles under his eyes for a while because he was able to witness his daughter's birth and take enough pictures of her and his wife to fill a photo album he showed everyone at the Olympic trials.
"I came in after my race and somebody said in the locker room, 'You ought to have babies more often,"' Parra said. "It was great. I cried. It was really emotionally draining. I was in there, counting contractions, and saw the baby's head come out.
"Through the whole pregnancy, I wasn't sure if I would make it there, because she was due on Dec.21....
"I hate to be away from her. It's OK when I'm at the rink, but I'm sad when I talk to my wife on the phone and hear the baby crying. I told her this week to take video, take pictures of everything."
Parra hopes he will in better physical shape by Friday, when he will compete in the 1,000 again.
"I hope to skate better and maybe make the team in the 1,000," he said. "But there's a lot of fast skaters.... The ice is fast. It helped my 500. I was joking that it must be fast if I went [35.88]."