Redemption Song

updated 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT'S FOUR MILES FROM THE EAST SAN Jose, Calif., trailer park where he lives with his mother to the San Jose Ice Centre where he trains and teaches, but figure skater Rudy Galindo makes the trip by bike. That's because he can't depend on his 1982 Honda—with 208,000 miles on it—to hold up.

Maybe he should trust it. On Jan. 20, at the relatively advanced age of 26, Galindo spun, leaped and glided to a stunning victory at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose. "I wanted to skate well for my family—and to help out my mom and me financially," says Galindo, who became the oldest men's champion in 70 years. "Right away I thought, 'Now I don't have to worry about how I'm going to pay for my skating.' "

Dressed in black, Galindo, who was ranked eighth last year and so lightly regarded that he was not included in the media guide, landed eight triple jumps in a long program skated to a jazz version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. His at once muscular and balletic skating buried precompetition favorites Todd Eldredge and Scott Davis and brought a hometown crowd of 10,869 to its feet a full 15 seconds before he concluded. "We were all standing and yelling," says Morry Stillwell, president of the U. S. Figure Skating Association. "It became clear to everyone that this was going to be something magical."

The magic was not just in the performance but in the fact that Galindo was giving it at all. In the late '80s, Galindo had been a champion pairs skater with Kristi Yamaguchi. (They became so symbiotic that Rudy briefly changed his name to Rudi.) But Yamaguchi decided to devote her energies to singles competition and cut Galindo loose. Moreover, during the last seven years, Galindo, who is openly gay, lost two coaches, Jim Hulick and Rick Inglesi, to AIDS. His younger brother George also died of the disease, and his truck driver father, Jess, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 73.

Leaving the ice after his championship performance, Galindo shouted into the rafters, "Thank you, Dad. Thank you, George, Jim, Rick." He then rushed over to hug his coach and sister, Laura Galindo, 30, who in 1985 gave up her own dreams of championships to join the Ice Follies and make enough money, she says, to "support my brother's career."

Laura and Rudy grew up in East San Jose, in the same double-wide mobile home where Rudy and their mother still live. A vivacious woman with long, wavy brown hair, Laura says she fell in love with skating while attending a childhood birthday party. Soon she and Rudy were both taking lessons.

Galindo was teamed with Yamaguchi in 1983 at age 13, and in 1989 and 1990 the couple won the national pairs championship. According to his friend Tina Hemingway, 23, Galindo was "devastated" by Yamaguchi's decision to concentrate on singles skating. Christine Brennan, author of Inside Edge, a book on figure skaters, says that Galindo "drank and took speed. Kristi became a millionaire, and he became destitute." Returning to singles himself, Galindo placed fifth at the 1993 nationals and slipped to seventh in 1994 and eighth in 1995. Then came his amazing performance in San Jose.

For her part, Yamaguchi, 24, says she was "thrilled" by Galindo's triumph in the nationals: "Rudy has such an incredible talent. I knew that if he could channel it and work through all his struggles, he could really do well." The breakup, she says, was hard on both of them. "It's not a perfect world," she observes. "Our lives went in different directions."

Galindo, currently preparing for the world championships in March and looking forward to the '98 Olympics, is excited about the sudden turn his life has taken. He will get at least $20,000 in grants from the USFSA to help defray his expenses, and more than one high-powered agent has already expressed interest in signing him. "It's happened so fast I'm still shaking," says Galindo. "I was so close to getting into the Olympics with Kristi—it was right in my grasp and I lost it. Now it's back in my grasp again."


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