The Fall Most Feared

updated 04/17/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was a simple practice jump, nothing fancy or strenuous, yet it left Rudy Galindo gasping for air. Normally a high-energy performer, Galindo, 30, just couldn't catch his breath as he warmed up to skate on Jan. 31 at the Kansas Coliseum in Wichita, one of 30 cities on the Champions on Ice winter tour. Somehow he managed to start his explosive routine—but 40 seconds into it, his lungs seemed to seize up. "I waved my arm and left the ice," he says. "I was scared." Still, it took Galindo several days to seek medical help. "I was afraid to go to the doctor," he explains. "In my heart I knew I had something worse than bronchitis or the flu."

Galindo's worst fears were justified. In late February he learned he is HIV-positive, a diagnosis that is only the latest sad chapter in a life touched too often by tragedy. The Mexican-American son of a truck driver, he bucked long odds to win the U.S. Nationals in 1996, the first Latino—and openly gay—skater to do so. But he also had to cope with seeing his older brother George and two of his coaches die of AIDS. Now it is Galindo who must deal with the grim disease. "He has fought through disadvantages, and he's a very inspiring guy," says ABC skating analyst Dick Button. "I expect he will give this his best shot."

Galindo has already overcome his initial reaction to his illness, which was sheer terror and despair. The memory of George, whom Galindo nursed through his final eight months in 1994, was almost too much to bear. "I took care of him when he was dying, and I saw everything he went through: dementia, bedridden, diapers, all bones," he says. "I thought, 'That's going to happen to me.' " His sister Laura Galindo Black, 34—his best friend (her name is tattooed on his right arm), coach and de facto mother—helped him come to terms with the diagnosis. "I kept telling him, 'You are not George,' " she says. "This is a different era. Medications are better, lifestyles are different."

Galindo believes he knows how he contracted HIV. "I made a mistake," he says, his voice breaking. "I met this person at a club on my birthday when I turned 21. I was in love with him. We were together on and off for about a year. I later heard through the grapevine he had HIV." Part of Galindo's pain stems from his realization that, despite seeing how AIDS affected his brother and his trainer Jim Hulick, who died in 1989, he still allowed himself a terrible lapse in judgment. "I tried to be as careful as I could because of my brother, but things just happen," says Galindo. "It was one of those careless moments in life."

It didn't help, says Galindo, that his parents never discussed his homosexuality, much less safe sex, in their trailer-park home in San Jose, Calif., where Galindo lived until he was 26. His father, Jess, who died of a heart attack in 1993, hauled fuel for NASA rockets, and his mother, Margaret, now 60, suffered from mental illness. "Once every three years she would get sick and end up in the hospital," says Galindo. When he was 6, he tagged along on Laura's skating lessons and found solace in the sport. "We didn't have a childhood," he says, "until we were on the ice."

In 1983, Galindo teamed with rising star Kristi Yamaguchi, and the two became top-ranked pairs skaters. But in 1990, Yamaguchi left to pursue a solo career. "I was devastated," says Galindo, who went on a three-month drug-and-alcohol binge. Then in 1995, his trainer Rick Inglesi died of AIDS. Galindo was ready to give up competing and started giving skating lessons. He only decided to enter the 1996 Nationals after learning they were in San Jose, his hometown.

Not given much of a chance, Galindo landed eight triple jumps to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake for a stunning upset victory. An instant hero in gay and Latino communities, he turned pro in 1996 and proved a huge fan favorite. "There's nobody like him," says Champions on Ice producer Tom Collins. "He's so energetic and has such a following. He's one of the best entertainers in skating today."

Then, this January, Galindo "started getting this phlegmy cough," he says. "It wouldn't go away." After pulling out of the Wichita show, Galindo saw a doctor, who put him on flu medication. Still feeling sick, he willed himself through the first round of the Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Feb. 17 but couldn't summon the strength to practice the next day. "From the look in Rudy's eyes, I knew something was terribly wrong," says Laura, who flew in to be with him. "We both had a feeling what it could be, but we never spoke it out loud. We didn't want to face reality."

Galindo moved in with Laura, who lives in Reno with her husband, Andy, and their 16-month-old son Tyler (she is now eight months pregnant). He learned he had HIV when he overheard a doctor discussing his X-rays with an assistant. "My heart went into my throat," he says. One night, Galindo became so panicked he had to be taken to an emergency room after an anxiety attack. Among his fears was the prospect of never skating again. "I remember him getting out of his hospital bed," says Laura, "and walking through his skating routine in his gown."

Since the hospitalization, Galindo has been feeling better. He is on an aggressive, relatively new treatment for HIV called antiretroviral therapy, which requires him to take three pills in the morning and one at night. The pills sometimes make him feel slightly lightheaded, but overall "his prognosis is good," says Dr. Steven Parker, the nationally renowned, Reno-based infectious-diseases specialist who is treating him. "I have no reason to doubt he can return to skating."

Galindo did just that on March 27, when he ventured to the San Jose Ice Centre. "I did a single axel," he says. "The next day I did a double, and the next day a triple. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm on the ice doing something!' " On April 3, Galindo rejoined the Champions on Ice tour in Baltimore and hopes to resume competing in the fall. "I know his strength more than he knows his own," says Laura, "and I know he will make it."

Alex Tresniowksi
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Reno and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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