American skaters' need: lots of speed

On perhaps fastest track in world, Germans, Dutch lead speed skating pack

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 09, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

KEARNS, Utah - For American speed skater Derek Parra, there's only one way to focus before a big race. There's only one way he can calm his nerves, channel his energy and prepare himself to take on the world in the 5,000 meters, one of the events that kick off the Winter Olympics today.

Fig Newtons.

Parra gorges himself on an entire pack every night before a big race, a superstition he says gives him "tunnel vision." But when you consider the Americans are big underdogs in long-track speed skating, with the top medals expected to go to dominant Dutch and German skaters, Parra's strategy may be as good as any.

This much is certain: Speed will be in abundance, regardless of uniform color. The Utah Olympic Oval is set 4,675 feet above sea level, and is the highest speed skating arena in the world. It has also been called the fastest. As the altitude increases, the harder the ice gets; combine that with dry air and low air pressure and world records are very likely to fall. In World Cup competition here in March, five world records fell in 10 overall events.

Technology is still a hot topic in speed skating. Most of the athletes are expected to don the much-talked-about high-tech Nike "Swift Suits." They cut down on drag because of their aerodynamic design, a combination of three kinds of material.

The 2002 games will also be the second Olympics since the introduction of clap skates, which have radically changed the sport and helped shatter a number of world records. Clap skates, unlike traditional speed skates, are only attached to the blade of the skate at the toe, allowing the blade to remain in contact with the ice longer, generating more speed. In the 5,000, two skaters race against the clock counter-clockwise around the 400-meter oval. Because the inside lane covers a shorter distance than the outside lane, skaters are required to changes lanes during each lap.

Team USA will be familiar with the layout, but it might not matter. Parra and fellow American K.C. Boutiette made the Olympic team in 1998, but neither finished higher than 12th in the 5,000 in Nagano, Japan. Still, Parra earned a silver medal at the 2001 World Single Distance Championships in the 1,500, and Boutiette finished eighth in the 5,000.

"I would say two years ago [our team] wasn't that good," said Boutiette, the American record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000. "Then all of a sudden, we grew off each other and became strong. It's confidence, too. A lot of these guys on our team weren't even on the national teams [two years ago]."

Parra certainly has done all he could to get here after going to Nagano as an alternate. In December, his wife, Tiffany, nearly nine months' pregnant, decided to induce early labor so that her husband wouldn't have to choose between the most two important events of his life: the birth of his daughter Mia Elizabeth and the U.S. trials. The Californian made both, cutting the umbilical cord, then flying to Kearns the next day and making the Olympic team.

Ultimately, the 5,000 is suffering from a lack of star power because of the absence of world-record holder Gianni Romme of the Netherlands. Nicknamed "The Dude" after his favorite movie, The Big Lebowski, Romme surprisingly failed to qualify for the Dutch team in the 5,000, an event he won in Nagano. (He also won gold in the 10,000 in 1998, and will try to defend it here.) In his place, the Dutch will look to Jochem Uytdehaage, a promising 25-year-old who is peaking after a strong World Cup season. He is considered the favorite.

"I'm realistic," Uytdehaage said. "I know what I have to do on the ice. I can be one of the best. That's the way I'm going to approach it. If I skate the perfect race and someone is faster, they are better."

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