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Skating Preview: Skater changes attitudes and his fortunes

Sunday, April 18, 1999

By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It's funny, how things go sometimes.

 
  Champions on Ice


Where: Civic Arena.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Starring: Brian Boitano, Michelle Kwan, Elvis Stojko, Oksana Baiul, Rudy Galindo, Vickor Petrenko, Phillippe Condeloro and others.

Tickets: $30, $40 and $55. 412-323-1919.

   
 

For years, Rudy Galindo felt himself a pariah in the conservative world of figure skating simply because he was openly gay.

Now, he finds himself a hero in a larger, much more diverse arena, in large part for the very same reason.

Galindo, who skates at the Civic Arena Wednesday evening as part of the Champions on Ice tour, found acceptance and stardom in 1996. That's when he defied the odds he felt were stacked against him and became, at age 26, the United States' oldest men's amateur figure skating champion in 70 years.

His triumph before a home crowd in San Jose, Calif., provided a happy ending to a gut-wrenching story Hollywood would have rejected as too implausible:

Family of long-distance trucker sacrifices everything to help homosexual son develop into half of the United States' best pairs skating team in years. On the verge of international stardom, female partner (Kristi Yamaguchi) dumps boy and pairs skating and goes on to become women's singles Olympic champion.

Boy keeps skating as an individual, keeps striving in obscurity and near poverty, living in his mother's trailer and traveling by bicycle in order to keep training. He survives the devastating deaths of his father, brother and two coaches (the latter three to AIDS) and his mother's emotional problems. Only his pretty sister/coach is there to help him keep reaching for the goal of skating in one last nationals. If he doesn't do well skating before Mom in San Jose, he will quit competing and start coaching.

You know the rest: Rudy Galindo followed up that U.S. title with a bronze medal at the worlds, turned pro and, suddenly, the fact that he is gay was just one more reason to like him.

Now, Galindo jokes, the only people who seem to hold his sexual preference against him are the International Skating Union judges who score him in professional competitions. Otherwise, people both straight and gay seek him out for friendship and counsel.

"I have people come up to me and say, 'Thank you for helping me out,' 'Thank you for helping my friend out,' " Galindo said. "They use my example to deal with family and friends: 'If he can do it, I can do it. I don't have to take drastic measures to tell people I am gay.' "

Galindo does more than live as an example. He actively gives back. Agent Nancy Rosenberg said he does numerous public appearances everywhere he goes, not just for gay groups, but for children and Latinos as well. In Detroit, he spoke to an association of parents, family and friends of people with AIDS; in Harlem, he taught children how to skate. There has been work for the Make a Wish Foundation, the Fresh Air Fund and AIDS research.

His speeches come from the heart.

"Usually I just tell my life story," Galindo said. "I tell them about my brother and my coaches dying of AIDS. About how I overcame all of that and persevered."

But never, he said, does he allow the focus to be simply on his homosexuality, which he said he has been aware of "as long as I can remember." Galindo is a skater who happens to be gay, not a homosexual who happens to skate.

"One thing I think about being openly gay, I think [actress] Ellen [DeGeneres] took it too far with kissing on screen. Everything with her revolved around sex. With me, everything revolves around skating.

"I don't tell anybody who I'm kissing."

And when he is on the ice, most people don't care.

Yes, there is a balletic artistry to Galindo that sets him apart from today's top male amateurs, who rely primarily on jumps and spins. And, yes, he still prefers glitzy skating outfits. (On Wednesday, he'll skate to a medley of Village People songs in a Navy-style uniform before stripping down to a "pretty risqué" red, white and blue tank top.) But all of that is part of his appeal.

An avid weight lifter, Galindo also does the requisite jumps and spins and leaps because, he said, Champions on Ice emphasizes athletic ability more than the decidedly theatrical Stars on Ice does.

Each skater performs just one solo and appears in just one group routine, so Galindo has a lot of time to kill despite his heavy schedule of personal appearances and the long hours of busing on the tour. To pass the time, Galindo asked a couple of the female skaters to teach him how to knit.

In the past few months, he has made three size 1 sweaters for the newest love of his life, his 3-month-old nephew, Tyler Black, son of his coach/sister Laura and brother-in-law Andy Black.

The celebration of that birth on the heels of so much death is just another good thing that has come his way since that championship in San Jose. He drives a BMW M3 now and lives in a house built in the hills of Oakland. He's building another in Las Vegas, and there will be one for his mother right beside it.

As far as that part of his private life that he keeps private, well, for now there isn't any. These days, his time is devoted to touring.



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