Today, let's talk about Rudy Galindo.
His victory at the US Championships in 1996 is an underdog story if figure skating ever had one. It’s an iconic performance that could easily be the climax of a movie without changing a thing.
In 1996, Galindo arrived at Nationals without having won it since his days as a novice, or even having stood on the podium since he was a junior. (In singles, that is - he and Kristi Yamaguchi also skated pairs and were double national champions together.) He'd had some success as a junior - bronze, then silver, then gold at junior Worlds, the last the year before he and Yamaguchi also took the title in pairs - but once he and Yamaguchi split for good, he spent years without any big international assignments, with a best of fifth place at Nationals. By this competition, he was 26, old enough for people to start remarking on his age.
That wasn't the only disadvantage he had working against him, though. First, after years of feeling like the judges were biased against him for being too camp and because of his Mexican heritage, he had come out as gay in a book published just days before. It was a bold move in a judged sport rife with homophobia and with very few active competitors who were out at the time.
Second, while skating demands large amounts of money, Galindo was lacking it. In the run-up to 1996, he was given zero funding or encouragement from USFS. He biked to the rink because he couldn't afford a car; his sister started coaching him for free and helped to cover some of his expenses.
And lastly, he'd been through enough personal tragedy for a lifetime in only a few years. In 1989, his and Yamaguchi's coach died of AIDS complications. In 1993, his father passed from a heart attack; in 1994, his brother, who he helped nurse, also died of AIDS; and in 1995, yet another coach of his died from AIDS as well. No wonder he needed to take an eight-month break from training after 1995 Nationals.
But the 1996 championships were in his hometown. And Galindo decided that he wanted to give everyone a performance they wouldn't forget, not one they would cheer for just because he was the local competitor.
Spectators at practice sessions noted a composed confidence in Galindo, and he carried that through his short program. He was not the fastest skater on the ice, but his performance was enough to land him in third place (apparently to boos from the crowd, who thought he should be higher).
For his free skate, he wore a costume that not even the most conservative judge could object to, and skated to one of the most standard pieces of music in all of figure skating: Swan Lake. Galindo's Swan Lake was unique, though, in that rather than a swan or a prince, he characterized himself instead as the evil wizard Rothbart.
Though he was last to skate, he betrayed no hint of nerves as he started his program, striking a few dramatic poses before landing a smooth 3A3T that made the commentators exclaim aloud. The bombastic opening section merged into a calmer one, where he showed off his flexibility:
And man, remember dramatically held spread eagles in big circles?
The music went light and playful, and Galindo became light with it, completing each jump and then continuing through his choreography with ease and grace:
In the last minute of the program, you can see him begin to smile to himself as his movements become celebratory.
He even took a moment to wave to someone in the audience :)
He finished his program with the traditional spin, showing off his nice layback position while the audience started to cheer and then didn’t really stop. Those who were there say that people were on their feet for him before he was done skating.
As he came off the ice, he hugged his sister, before he turned his head and shouted upward to convey his love to some of those he had lost. When the technical marks were announced, the crowd didn’t just scream their heads off - they started to chant their opinion for the artistic ones: SIX. SIX. SIX. SIX. SIX.
Two of the judges agreed, and the rest placed him high enough to win over the favorite, Todd Eldredge. And Rudy Galindo, the twenty-six-year-old who had never stood on the senior podium at Nationals or been sent to any major competition as a singles skater, who was bearded and Hispanic and gay, was now the US men's champion.
(He's often cited as 'the oldest in 70 years'; however, this number seems to be closer to 60, going back to Roger Turner, and he was only a few months older than Tickner was in 1980. Still an impressive accomplishment!)
His exhibition was a tribute to those he and so many others had lost to the AIDS crisis, the theme made loud and clear by his simple costume consisting only a black suit with a large red AIDS awareness ribbon around his neck.
At his first and only senior Worlds in men's singles, he won the bronze medal. Following this successful season, he considered making a run for the Olympics, but instead retired to the pro and show circuit, always receiving a very warm welcome from the audience. I highly recommend his pro program to Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which yeah, is pretty gay and always makes me tear up at this moment:
Despite his struggles with depression and addiction, and an HIV diagnosis in 2000, nowadays he seems to be doing well. He works as a choreographer and has become a coach, and he often posts proud videos of his students.
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