Utah's Olympic Legacy: The Impact of the 2002 Winter Games. Part Five: Training Ground for Winter Athletes
By Andrea Smardon
Salt Lake City, UT – On the first day of the 2002 Games, Derek Parra skated 5000 meters faster than anyone else in the world. But 10 years later, as he sits looking down at the ice where it all happened, it's not the cheering of fans that sticks in his mind. It's the silence from the night before, when he held the flag at the Opening Ceremonies.
"We walk down the stage, and it was silent. It was very, very emotional, being on the stage holding the flag," Parra said, "I think if I had to describe that moment, it was as if time stood still because everyone in that stadium - let alone the world - was feeling the same emotion."
Parra - who is originally from California - is now the Outreach Coordinator at the Olympic Oval in Kearns. He says he still feels the spirit of the 2002 Games every day when he walks into the building.
"I was in inline championships when I was younger, I won 18 world titles, I skated for years, and the spirit that was here for those 17 days has been unmatched in my life, and I think I identify now by trying to keep sharing that," said Parra.
On this evening, the Oval is a bustle of activity. Skaters from Italy, Holland, and Kazakstan are skating around the long track, preparing for a World Cup. On the short track, Parra is teaching a speedskating class with students of all ages. He stops to give a teenage skater some individual attention.
"The important thing," Parra explained, "is you're never going to race fresh. Even when you're fatigued, you're trying to work on things that you work on every day, being low, being in control, being balanced."
Eight-year-old Max Solin is here on holiday all the way from Australia. He jumped at the chance to train with an Olympian.
"I may go to the Olympics if I'm good enough probably in 2026, that's my goal," said Solin.
Parra says most of the students in the class are from the local area. Some just use the Oval for fun, and some might even go on to become top competitors.
"I can't imagine as a child growing up with something like this in my backyard and not utilizing it," said Parra, "I traveled all over the country, trying to find the path to get to the top of the podium. I think the fact that this building is in Kearns, can be a huge impact for the kids here, not only in winter sports, but learning things about camaraderie, goal setting, teamwork, and what it takes to be a champion."
17-year-old speedskater and Olympic hopeful Jerica Tandiman is one of those kids who grew up with the Oval in her backyard. She sits down after her morning practice at the Oval - still outfitted in her sleek black body suit, and remembers the days before the Olympics, when the Oval was an outdoor facility.
"We'd be all in our snowsuits, skating around falling, having fun as little kids, and then, once they built this into an indoor facility, my mom signed me up for learn to skate, and I just fell in love ever since," said Tandiman.
Tandiman was 7 years old when the Winter Games came to Utah, and still remembers the Olympic torch coming through her neighborhood.
"That really inspired me to start skating - watching the Olympians - and I knew that's what I wanted to do was race and be an Olympian someday," she said.
When you visit the venues, you get the impression there are lots more like Tandiman. While taking a tour of the Olympic Park, I got to see a luge athlete push off from the top of the track. He snapped his visor shut, rocked back and forth and he was off.
In the warming hut, Trent Matheson from Bountiful says he was 12 years old when the 2002 games came to Utah.
"That's actually when I kinda' got involved in luge. I saw men's singles then and, you know, I thought luge was pretty cool," he said.
Pretty cool, and now Matheson is on the US team. But it's not just locals who are catching the Olympic fever. There are many who have come from all over the country and the world to train. Since the Olympics, the national governing bodies of speedskating, bobsled, and skeleton have moved their headquarters here. And forty percent of the Olympians who participated in the Vancouver Games live in Utah. Former Salt Lake City mayor DeeDee Corradini says that's no accident.
"Back when we were going for the 1998 bid, the decision that the bid committee made was we wanted to become the winter sports capital of North America whether we won or lost the Olympics .and we are," she said.
Corradini is the President of Women's Ski Jumping USA and has been a leader in getting women's ski jumping included the Olympics- a movement that began here in 2002. Corradini says it was meeting top ski jumper- Lindsay Van of Park City - that made her want to get involved.
"It was just beyond me that in this day and age women still couldn't ski jump. Here in the United States, we have one of the best teams. And they're all in Park City, not all of them, but 90 percent of them," said Corradini.
The Olympic venues provide training grounds for elite athletes from Utah and around the world, but the Park and the Oval are also accessible to those of us who don't have skills in winter sports. For visitors to the Park, anyone can take a bobsled down an Olympic track. In the warming hut, Robert Lyon - formerly on the US team - is getting ready for his evening shift giving rides to the public. Lyon was born and raised in Park City, and says he's grateful to have an Olympic venue so close to home.
"We're still one of the best facilities in the entire world, and everyone knows that and everyone comes here to train. So It left an amazing impact I think in this community. Everyone would tell you in the towns of Salt Lake and Park City that we would love to have it again someday," he said.
Lyon may get his wish. Utah Governor Gary Herbert has formed an exploratory committee to determine whether Utah should pursue an Olympic bid for another winter games.