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Former Rollers Give Speed Skating a New Look
Shift Brings Diversity to U.S. Olympic Squad

Because of International Olympic Committee restrictions on Internet rights, may not offer audio of this report.

Feb. 13, 2002 -- American speed skating has traditionally been dominated by athletes from the upper Midwest, skaters with hair and skin as pale as the frozen lakes and rinks they raced on as kids. But that has all changed due to the popularity of in-line skating in warmer climates, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports for Morning Edition.

Derek Parra skates to silver medal

Derek Parra found the switch to ice skates from roller blades difficult at first.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

On the second day of competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics, a silver medal in the 5,000-meter speed skating event went to Derek Parra, who's 5 feet 4 inches tall and hails from southern California.

Parra is a prime example of a new trend in U.S. speed skating. The team at the Salt Lake City games includes Hispanic, Asian and African American athletes from Florida, California and North Carolina. The once solidly northern sport has headed south as in-line skaters take to the ice.

Bart Schouten, the U.S. national coach, couldn't be happier. "We've never had this wide of a variety of people in contention so we're really pleased," he says.

Shani Davis on the ice

Shani Davis began speed skating at the age of six.
Photo: U.S. Speedskating

One of his star pupils is Parra, who grew up in a predominantly Hispanic and black community in sunny San Bernardino, Calif.

"I lived in a neighborhood that wasn't the best..." Parra says. "I would go to the roller rink and I met people from cross town, white, Asian, whatever... "

Parra, now 31, became an in-line champion, setting world records and winning 18 world titles in 10 years. But in-line skating is not a recognized Olympic sport and Parra wanted to compete in the games. After a friend suggested speed skating, Parra borrowed some blades and took to the ice. Two weeks later he skated in his first U.S. trials.

The transition wasn't easy. He had to adjust to the angle of the blades. Until he got the hang of it, Parra's ice skates squeaked awkwardly. "Every time I pushed, you could hear me all the way around the track," he says.

Jennifer Rodriguez skates at Olympics time trial

As a roller skater, Jennifer Rodriguez won 12 world championship medals.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

In 1996, Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami also made the switch from in-line to ice. Two years later in Nagano, Japan, she became the first Hispanic American to compete in the Winter Olympics.

In-line skaters Apolo Ohno from Seattle and Joey Cheek from Greensboro, N.C., have filled out the squad, which is the most diverse and the strongest yet. And for the first time ever, Shani Davis, an African American, qualified for the 1,000 meters.

Davis says it's a little strange to be the new guy in a lily-white sport. "It's lonely man, it's lonely," he says.

But, as Parra's medal win shows, the newcomers are making their mark.

Previous NPR Coverage

Tavis Smiley interviews Shani Davis.

more Derek Parra skates to silver medal.

Other Resources

Official Salt Lake 2002 Web site about speed skating

Shani Davis bio

Derek Parra bio

Jennifer Rodriguez bio

U.S. Speedskating

Vista Magazine article on Derek Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez