San Jose Mercury News (CA)

May 21, 2000



Edition: Morning Final
Section: Front
Page: 1A

THE MAN settles into his chair with athletic grace, looks confidently into the camera and answers the question for the fourth time that day, the thousandth time in the past month.

''My doctors and my sister have emphasized that this is not a death sentence,'' Rudy Galindo says on MSNBC's morning show. ''There are new medications. I'm happy I found out in this era.''

This is what Galindo, 30, does. Since going public with his HIV-positive status last month, he has talked. He has talked to Dateline, to the Today Show, to People Magazine, USA Today, the New York Times, HIV-plus magazine.

Today the San Jose native will skate onto the ice at the arena with the Champions on Ice tour. It is the same spot where he touched the public's heart four years ago, winning a national title in an emotional triumph over adversity, showing that grace and grit can be partners.

When he takes the ice today, he has another message: He is a gay man who made a mistake but is still confident, still vibrant. Two decades worth of information and misinformation, fear and hope, HIV-positive celebrities, devastating losses and tiny victories, and yet the fight against AIDS has never had this: a high-profile, openly gay athlete who is HIV-positive yet continues to perform and compete.

''I'd rather do this than talk about my gold medal,'' he said this week during a day off from the grueling tour schedule. ''I want to help the situation.''

Just another ordeal

This isn't the first time Galindo has turned personal adversity into action, tragedy into triumph, sequins into fortitude. For Galindo, this is his customary alchemy.

He has overcome financial need and a system that ignored him to win a championship. He has witnessed death. He lost his father to a heart attack and two coaches and a brother to AIDS. He is well-versed in grief. But he knows strength is born in the dark.

''In our whole life, things happen for a reason,'' said Laura Galindo-Black, his sister and primary support system. ''Like the timing of this. Rudy couldn't have handled it four or five years ago. But he can handle it now.''

Today, Galindo will have goosebumps. So will everyone in the crowd who remembers Jan. 20, 1996.

''I think about that day all the time,'' Galindo said.

What Galindo accomplished at San Jose Arena four years ago changed his life. It changed the public reality of skating. It made an impact.

By pulling off perhaps the greatest upset in American figure skating, by leaping forth from a dormant, destroyed career onto the gold-medal stand, by doing it as an openly gay skater, by becoming the first Mexican-American champion, Galindo gained a national voice. His impact wasn't just because he had a gold medal around his neck. It was the way Rudy won -- full of emotion and honesty -- that touched people's hearts. They rooted for him.

And they are behind him now. When he skates out to the poignant ''Send in the Clowns,'' arenas fall silent. Tears fall. Tour producer Tom Collins calls it ''the most emotional number we've ever had'' in the two-decade history of the show.

''I get so many letters from people who say they're proud of me, who have a son or a brother who is HIV,'' Galindo said. ''When I skate, I can hear people shouting, 'We love you.' It's amazing. I can just feel the love.''

Galindo went public with his condition last month. In February, feeling ill and short of breath, he withdrew from the Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., and went home to Reno, his home base since Laura and her husband, Andy, moved there last year to run a restaurant. Their mother, Margaret, also moved, finally leaving the trailer she lived in for years in San Jose. Laura's children, Tyler, 17 months, and Marina, four weeks, complete the family.

Getting the word

Galindo had never been tested for HIV. Naive? Perhaps. In the early 1990s, he had a reckless period, a time of living on the edge, after he and Kristi Yamaguchi broke up as a pairs team.

But he felt healthy and strong and had been careful for years after witnessing the painful death of his brother George from AIDS in 1994. He had watched Jim Hulick, the coach who directed Galindo and Yamaguchi's rise as national pairs champions, die in 1989, back when no one discussed the disease with the young skaters. Another coach, Rick Inglesi, died in 1995. Three men from Galindo's small radius were already gone. Surely, the odds would be with Galindo.

They weren't. As with so many, it took an opportunistic infection to reveal the virus. Galindo had pneumonia; for weeks he had been skating on severely diminished lung capacity. When he had a chest X-ray and overheard the technician telling the doctor Galindo's lung infection appeared to be the result of HIV, he wasn't totally shocked. A few days later, an anxiety attack led him to the emergency room. He was admitted to a hospital, where doctors confirmed the results and started his drug program.

''At first it was shocking,'' Laura said. ''But Rudy's doctor (Steven Parker) made us feel so comfortable. This is just something else we have to get through.''

In those early days, there were tears, depression, fear. Yet even in his hospital bed, with Laura by his side, the discussion of how to inform the public was a natural progression from discussion of white blood cells and viral loads.

''I didn't want to be in hiding about it,'' Galindo said. ''It's so much easier to be open about it, to lay my cards on the table.''

It was the obvious step. Galindo revealed his sexual orientation in a book published in early 1996. Though he initially avoided the topic -- even after the book's release -- he has learned that living honestly has made life more relaxing.

''The easiest thing was for me to come out with this,'' he said. ''Instead of everyone not knowing and asking, 'Why, why, why? Why is Rudy in the hospital?' now they know.''

Prominent spokesman

The disclosure comes as the AIDS community desperately needs it. Early testing, education and medical developments have helped make great progress. But infection rates are on the rise in specific segments of society, such as young gay men who didn't experience the holocaust of the 1980s, and minority populations.

''The devastation is going up in new communities,'' said Peter Velasco, the director of communities for the National Minority AIDS Council. ''For people to think this is solved is very wrong.''

Galindo is featured in an NMAC public information campaign that will be rolled out next month. It is one of many ways he's becoming visible -- tonight he will march in the candlelight AIDS awareness march in San Francisco, next month he will act as grand marshal of San Jose's Gay Pride Parade.

''It's very important to have someone like Rudy involved,'' Velasco said. ''The messenger is just as important as the message. People need to make a connection with the person speaking. I believe Rudy can play a tremendous role in this, particularly with younger men, gay men, people of color.''

Galindo hopes he can also play a role in the skating community. Four years ago, he thought he might help pave the way for other skaters to reveal their sexual identity, but Galindo is still a relatively lone voice on the ice.

And despite the AIDS-related deaths of British Olympic champion John Curry, Canadian ice dancer Rob McCall and former U.S. junior champion Robert Wagenhoffer, Galindo's current impact may be falling on skating's deaf ear. The U.S. Figure Skating Association implemented an AIDS education component to its seminars in 1993, but it was soon dropped. There has been no formal program offered to competitors for five years.

''The feeling has been that the information is already getting to athletes in health education in the community and schools,'' said USFSA spokesman Bob Dunlop.

But skaters focused on their sport spend their sexually formative years on the ice, in a skating community, their links to school and the rest of the world compromised.

''No one ever talked to me about safe sex,'' Galindo said. ''Even when my brother was dying, he didn't talk about it. No one did.''

Galindo knows his message is more powerful if accompanied by action. He plans to train hard this summer so he can do well in professional competitions next fall.

He never thought about leaving the Champions on Ice tour. The tour also is part family, part therapy group, his own ''safe haven.'' He was welcomed back with open arms and love. His fellow skaters throw their arms around him, protect him.

''You never know how someone is going to react to this disease,'' Laura said. ''But the response has been overwhelming.''

On the ice, Galindo found a place to direct his anger, his passion for life. It's not the first time. Galindo once explained why he persisted, even when everyone assumed his career was over: ''I kept skating because in real life all of these bad things were happening,'' he said in 1996. ''But when I skated, I could push everything out of my head.''

These days, Galindo's alarm goes off at 2 a.m. so he can take one dose of his medication, which makes him groggy. Initial results of the treatment have been extremely favorable.

He handles his condition as he has always handled his circumstances -- with black humor. When asked at the San Diego television station if there was anything he needed, he joked: ''A wheelchair, please?''

Looking back

When Galindo won his gold medal, he was called an unlikely hero. Only those who knew him years earlier could attest to how unlikely.

A decade ago, Galindo was an insecure, needy boy. He changed the spelling of his first name to ''Rudi'' to match his pairs partner Kristi. As the pairs partnership dissolved, Galindo became clingy and complaining. When his pairs dream was over and he pursued a solo career, the skating community scoffed at his attempts behind his back.

Galindo rebuilt himself. He is financially secure and taking care of his family. He is a doting uncle. He nursed his brother through deterioration and dementia. He has stood in the national spotlight, exposed and vulnerable, and asked to be accepted for who he is. And he has been. Now, he is a man. Confident and honest. Last September, when he turned 30, Galindo felt joy at hitting the milestone because, ''you know, I made it.''

Years ago there was a controversy about Rudy's statement on his column in San Jose's monument to skating. His words were eventually changed to include this phrase: ''I guess I'm a survivor. I don't know where it came from.''

I know. From inside Rudy's heart.

PHOTO: Rudy Galindo
1996 U.S. champ returns to native San Jose today.
PHOTO: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS -- ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES Rudy Galindo won the U.S. figure skating championship at his hometown San Jose Arena in 1996, then went on to take third at the world championships. 
He has since gone on the professional tour and moved to Reno, but the memory of his San Jose triumph stays with him. ''I think about that day all the time,'' he said. 

Copyright (c) 2000 San Jose Mercury News 

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