SAN JOSE, Calif. – Rudy Galindo reached a milestone this season. It is his 30th as a figure skating coach, beginning when he was a 20-year-old working to help defray his own competitive skating expenses.
Galindo will reach another milestone next season. It will be the 25th anniversary of his utterly unexpected and emotionally compelling triumph in men’s singles at the 1996 U.S. Championships. And talk about the stars aligning: the 2021 nationals, like those of 1996, are in his hometown of San Jose.
Those career landmarks would seem reason enough for a party – or several.
Except one of the most charismatic skaters in U.S. history said he isn’t a party animal any more.
When his old pairs partner, 1992 Olympic singles champion Kristi Yamaguchi, calls to ask if he wants to join her at a San Jose Sharks hockey game on a Saturday night, he will reply, “I’m in bed by then.”
“My life is pretty dull,” Galindo said, with a laugh. “Friends ask me to go out, and I say no. They call me a hermit or a recluse.”
No wonder, given the usual daily schedule Galindo outlined. He is up at 4 a.m., coaching from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., then lunch, a nap and a visit to the gym, coaching from 3 to 6 p.m., dinner and another gym visit to work off the meal before a 9 p.m. lights out at his loft condo in downtown San Jose.
“What do I do for fun? Nothing,” he said during the break between his coaching sessions at the Solar4America arena.
“I tell Rudy he needs to enjoy his life,” said Laura Galindo-Black, his sister and one-time coach. “He has become such a homebody. Touring all those years, being an entertainer for thousands of people, it’s like the opposite now.”
Friends like fellow coach Jeff Crandell insist that Galindo still has a sense of humor that makes him a great companion.
I’m happy with steady work and a job I love so much. I just want to help take these kids to the next level.
But fun for the 50-year-old Galindo now is his work, mostly with lower-level or beginning skaters, including Yamaguchi’s daughter, Emma Hedican.
The relationship between Yamaguchi and Galindo went through a long period of strain when she quit pairs to concentrate on singles after winning senior national pairs titles with him in 1989 and 1990, a decision that likely kept him from competing at the 1992 Olympics. They moved past that history over the years when they saw each other on the professional circuit.
Their lives had been intertwined for so long, including almost two years when Galindo lived with the Yamaguchi family, that the bonds never broke irrevocably.
“We still are definitely family,” Yamaguchi said.
So, when Emma expressed interest in skating at age five, Yamaguchi turned to Galindo. He has coached her since 2011.
“It was knowing his technique and his passion for teaching,” Yamaguchi said. “It just made sense. Obviously, I trust him, too.”
Hedican, 14, who won bronze in the open juvenile class at the 2019 Central Pacific Regionals, has other sports interests, including club soccer, rather than the total commitment to skating needed to be among its elite. And because of distance, she trains with Galindo just twice a week.
“She loves her lesson with Rudy,” Yamaguchi said. “She has even said to me, ‘I wish I had the chance to have more lessons with him.’ That’s when she lights up on the ice. He makes it fun for them and is very positive.”
Galindo has experienced working with the top end, as well. He choreographed 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds’ programs from 2015 through 2018. That included her heavenly winning short program to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” at the 2016 U.S. Championships, for which he won a nomination as Professional Skaters Association choreographer of year.
He also choreographed Alysa Liu’s programs as an intermediate in 2016 and a novice in 2017. When her novice free skate topped 100 points at the Pacific Coast Sectionals, Galindo was amazed.
“I thought, ‘She’s going somewhere,’” Galindo said.
Liu’s journey since has brought her to back-to-back senior national titles – the first made her the youngest U.S. senior champion ever. This week, it has taken her to Estonia for her first World Junior Championships, in which she is a title contender, with Russia’s Kamila Valieva the favorite.
“I think she will give Kamila a run for her money,” Galindo said.
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Look who stopped by on a Sunday morning session. Our new U.S National Champion Alysa Liu. Just seems like yesterday when I worked with her now she is the Champion. Proud of you Alysa and your coach Laura.Bay Area and St Moritz ISC represent.❤️⛸ #tripleaxelqueen #bayareachampions #proudofyou @alysaxliu @coach__laura @stmoritzisc @theskatinglesson @usfigureskating
Galindo accompanied Liu at the 2017 sectionals but he rarely travels with skaters now. After 30 years as a competitor and a touring show skater, he prefers to stay home. And, since he is the secondary coach for most skaters with whom he works, Galindo sees no reason to have parents bear the travel expenses of two coaches.
Liu is to be one of the performers when the Skating Club of San Francisco honors Galindo at its annual fundraising gala April 4. So is Kate Wang, whose programs Galindo choreographed this season, when she finished fifth in juniors at the 2020 U.S. Championships.
“Rudy finds just as much joy working with a beginner as with a champion,” said Crandell, Wang’s primary coach.
Galindo calls himself a “full-service coach,” able to help with jumps, spins, footwork and choreography. He is like many such people near the base of the coaching pyramid, teaching the skills that skaters later bring to “big name” coaches who get the credit for medals those athletes win.
“Sure, I’d like to build a champion, but for most coaches, that’s once in a blue moon,” Galindo said. “I’m happy with steady work and a job I love so much. I just want to help take these kids to the next level.
“I know I’m a good coach. As the secondary coach, you don’t have to deal with all the problems, like when they get results that aren’t good. The blame goes to the head coach.”
It’s not surprising that Galindo prefers fewer problems in his life. Before turning 27, despite impressive early success as a skater, he had endured enough difficulties for several lifetimes.
He had been a singles skater for several seasons, winning the U.S. novice title, before embarking simultaneously on a pairs career in 1985 with Yamaguchi, who then was also a rising singles skater. No U.S. pair ever had two such technically accomplished individuals: each won a world junior title as well as a national title in singles; paired, they won the world junior title, two U.S. titles, twice finished fifth at the senior World Championships and did side-by-side triple flip jumps.
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Throwback to when Kristi and I first started skating pairs. Kristi is 11 yrs old and I am 13 yrs old here. Started pairs for fun not knowing in a few years from this moment we would be Junior National Champions and Junior World Champions. Within 6 years we became the U.S Senior Pair Champions.You never know. Work hard and follow your dreams and they will come true.Good Luck to all at the World Figure Skating Championships ❤️⛸ #pairskating #harlickskatingboots #usfs #rudyandkristi @kristiyamaguchi @emma_hedican @lauragalindoblack
The end of their partnership sent him into a downward spiral that accelerated when she won the 1992 Olympic title (after the 1991 world title), justifying her choice to pursue just one skating discipline.
“It’s like in a marriage when you get a divorce and see the other person succeed,” Galindo said. “They move on and marry a millionaire, and you’re still in the trailer park.”
In his case, the trailer park reference was literal.
Depressed, short of money, dealing with coaches and a brother dying of complications related to AIDS, living with his mother in the trailer in East San Jose, still a closeted gay athlete, Galindo turned to amphetamines and alcohol as he continued his skating career in singles. After an encouraging fifth at the 1993 nationals, his results kept getting worse: seventh in 1994 and eighth in 1995, after which he stopped training for several months.
One day, while riding a bike to work [he could not afford a car], he saw a billboard advertising the 1996 U.S. Championships, coming to San Jose got the first time. Galindo realized he wanted to compete in his hometown, where he felt the crowds would cheer him merely for being on the ice.
“But I didn’t want just that,” he said. “I wanted to train really hard so they could cheer for more than me doing a waltz jump [Editor’s note: one-half revolution].”
For several years, he had carried some 20 pounds of extra weight on his 5-foot, 6-inch body, partly from added bulk and muscle he needed in pairs to lift and throw his partner securely. The weight was making his triple jumps very iffy propositions.
Necessity became the mother of Galindo’s weight-loss program. Riding a bike from the trailer to the rink to the gym to another rink where he coached and then back home added up to 12 miles a day, and it helped peel off the pounds.
“I was so fit,” he said.
His sister had relieved some of the financial pressure by coaching him for free and covering other expenses, jokingly calling herself, “The Bank of Laura.” Yet even with that stability and his much better conditioning, no one could have foreseen what would happen during the third week of January 1996 at the San Jose Arena.
He came to the competition without having done a significant competition since the previous season. Even at his best, Galindo long had thought judges were reluctant to give him better scores because he wore over-the-top costumes and tons of makeup, but he had never performed well enough in singles at senior nationals to raise serious questions about anti-gay bias.
In journalist Christine Brennan’s book, “Inside Edge,” published a few days before the 1996 nationals, Galindo had come out publicly as gay and openly discussed his image issues. He also admitted that his temperamental behavior around Yamaguchi after the December, 1989 death from AIDS-related cancer of their pairs coach, Jim Hulick, had contributed to the end of their partnership.
“Kristi didn’t deserve that,” Galindo told Brennan. “Now I look back – what a jerk.”
His singles coach after Hulick, Rick Inglesi, died of AIDS-related causes in 1995. His brother, George, died of AIDS-related causes in 1994. Their father, Jess, had died of a heart attack in 1993.
It seemed all that extra baggage would crush Galindo at the 1996 championships. Just the opposite happened.
“That was his greatest achievement, doing it on his own terms,” Galindo-Black said. “He was finally skating free and happy.”
Yet the short program seemed to reinforce his old fears about proper credit from the judges. Todd Eldredge and Scott Davis, the 1-2 overall finishers in 1995, beat Galindo in the short program, Eldredge deservedly, Davis questionably. The crowd lustily booed Galindo’s scores.
For the free skate, to music from “Swan Lake,” Galindo, then 26, had chosen a costume that could not have been more conservative: all black but for thin lines of white piping at the neck and cuff. That would add to the elegance of what he did on the ice, a flawless 4 1/2 minutes with eight clean triple jumps in a building that roared with every landing and stood as one to applaud with 15 seconds left in his performance.
It was the most electric moment in the 35 U.S. Championships I have covered.
When Galindo pulls images from his memory bank about what he felt after the skate, he thinks of the trailer park and the bicycle and the look of delight on his sister’s face as he came off the ice.
“I was hoping it would be good enough to give me one of the three world team spots,” Galindo said. “Winning was far from my mind.”
Two of the nine judges gave him perfect 6.0s for presentation. Two inexplicably placed him behind Eldredge. But seven chose Galindo, making him, at that point, both the oldest men’s U.S. champion since 1932 and the first openly gay national champion.
Two months later, Galindo won a bronze medal at worlds as Eldredge took gold. It suddenly seemed as if Galindo would get to an Olympics after all – with the money to make a journey to the 1998 Winter Games easier after getting a spot on the lucrative Champions on Ice tour, in an era (soon after the Nancy/Tonya incident) when promoters and TV networks were throwing money at figure skaters.
As he began preparing for the 1997 season, a friend noted the financial risk he was taking at a time when Galindo’s longevity as a hot commodity was uncertain. Another gig with Champions on Ice might not come if he did not have another great season. He turned pro in September 1996.
“I have no regrets about the decision,” he says now. “I’m happy with the way things turned out.”
That includes his health. Galindo revealed in 2000 he was HIV positive. Twenty years later, he needs checkups only every six months and takes one pill a day to keep the virus in check.
“My doctor told me I’m probably going to die of something else,” he said.
Galindo also fell into what he admitted was alcoholism. He said he gave up alcohol when doctors told him the amount of wine he was drinking at home every day was a factor in his stomach ulcer.
“Clean and sober for eight years,” he said.
His left hip has squeaked audibly when he squats since double hip replacement surgery in 2003.
“You’re like the cat with nine lives. How many do you think you have used up?” I asked Galindo.
“Four,” he answered, with a big chuckle.
Galindo skated with Champions from 1996 until that tour dissolved after its 2007 run. His program to three Village People songs – including gay anthems “Macho Man” and “YMCA” – became an iconic showstopper.
He did it for the last time at the Caesar’s Palace “Salute to the Golden Age of American Skating” in 2010. Galindo has not performed in public since.
“During the years we toured on Champions on Ice, I watched in awe as he brought the house down night after night,” Nancy Kerrigan said in introducing Galindo at the Caesar’s show.
He had lived near Laura in Reno, Nevada, for most of the years when he was touring or competing in pro events. There was no permanent rink in Reno, so he and Laura did some coaching in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., until the commute – 90 minutes each way – became untenable.
He moved back to the Bay Area in 2010, first to Oakland, then to San Jose when he found much more coaching work there. It brought Galindo back to the arena, managed now by a subsidiary of the San Jose Sharks, where he had trained for 1996. It had two ice sheets then and has four ice sheets now, with another two on the way.
“I’ve known Rudy since he was a little boy, and we love having him here as a coach,” said Candy Goodson, skating director at Solar4America. “He is super dependable, and the quality of his work is wonderful.”
Galindo also has no ego-driven need to remind people of his accomplishments, which include a 2013 induction into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. His reward, as his sister said, is having a little kid he coaches give him a hug and say, “Thank you.”
“I’ll be coaching until I die,” he said. “I will be here in a walker.”
As if to foreshadow such a moment, Galindo has been coaching the past couple weeks while sitting behind the boards because he is on crutches after badly bruising a knee in a misstep.
Why not just sit out for a while?
“What else would I do?” he said. “I just want to coach.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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