The saga of Rudy's ice skating career is deeply rooted in his
strong relationship with his sister.
"I always copied everything Laura did. Like if she and her girlfriends would be walking around the trailer park, of course, I always wanted to follow. And one time she told me . . ." Rudy briefly stops mid-sentence. "I'm going off on a tangent, but anyway, one day she told me, 'No, you can't follow. Go back home.' And my dad had bought her this beautiful doll that you don't take out of its case. Remember?" he asks Laura. She turns to him and nods, sensing the story which will follow.
"And I was so mad, I went and cut all of the curls off the doll's hair. Basically, I always wanted to do everything that she did."
So naturally, when Laura began taking ice skating classes Rudy tagged along. He would skate near his big sister during her lesson copying the coach's instructions. Another coach noticed Rudy's interest in the sport and encouraged him to sign up for his own lessons, which he did.
Unfortunately, the Galindo family could not afford lessons for both their children and Laura stopped attending so that he could continue. She took a part-time job to help pay for his skating as well. Twenty years later, Laura is coaching Rudy. "He was more talented than I was," she explains. "He can be a great skater. But I'm the greatest instructor!" she adds with a laugh.
In addition to coaching Rudy, Laura has been giving lessons to children and adults for the past ten-and-a-half years. Most recently, she's taken a break from teaching at the San Jose Ice Centre to concentrate on getting her brother ready for the World Figure Skating Championships this month.
Laura says there are many positive aspects to being her brother's coach. "With other students, I have to learn how they act and what they are feeling. With Rudy, I know him so well that I already know
what's going on."
Just as siblings will have their inside jokes-and these two have many-Rudy and Laura have a good luck ritual they do before a competition. According to Laura, right before Rudy performs, he circles around the practice rink. "Then he comes up, and we just stare at each other and he kisses me and I just tell him to stay tough. And then he goes," Laura says.
Rudy also recognizes the benefits of being coached by his sister. Especially the financial benefits: she doesn't charge for lessons, though the two have joked about her getting paid now that he's won Nationals. The emotional benefits are just as important to Rudy. "Some coaches and skaters have really close relationships," he admits. "But nothing could be close like us."
Having grown up with Rudy and from watching him develop as a skater, Laura has learned to detect what she calls "natural talent." "[Rudy] was very naturally talented. You can tell when a student has natural talent. I deal with a lot of kids and I see it all the time. They pick up on it easier. It's easier for them to understand and get a feel for the sport."
At the Ice Centre on a Sunday morning, kids who could be in front of
the T.V. watching cartoons and adults who could easily be in bed reading
the Sunday paper are in the rink practicing axels and leaps and learning
new moves. Melinda Duggish, 14, and her friend Benny Wu, 13, play video
games while they wait for their class to begin. Duggish's grandmother, Jan
Myers, 65, reads a book.
Wu practices at the Ice Centre for two hours every morning. He gets in at the same time as Rudy and the two have become buddies on the rink.
"Rudy used to goof around with us during the summer. Then we'd work hard starting in September," says Wu. "But during the summer he would just talk and play around with us, we wouldn't be practicing for anything. We'd just be skating, and having fun."
It seems everyone at the Ice Centre, where Rudy trains and teaches, has a story about the national champion.
"This was way overdue coming for him," says Myers. "We were in Detroit two years ago at nationals and he skated the most magnificent program. The crowd was on their feet long before he had finished and they were screaming. He got about a 15 minute standing ovation. They just wouldn't let him off the ice. It was unbelievable. I had never seen anybody in any type of performance, skating or anything, that brought that much participation and excitement from the audience. It was just exuberant. I've forgotten where he finished but he didn't finish at the top."
"He finished like seventh," her granddaughter cuts in. "That was when they were putting together the Olympic team. The year the Kerrigan and Tonya thing happened," says Myers.
The excitement with which Myers retells the story of seeing Rudy perform and the fact that she brings up the controversy surrounding Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding could reflect a changing image for ice skating. For a while, the sport seemed overshadowed by "the Kerrigan and Tonya thing" which was at first taken very seriously, but was soon joked about. Now followers of the sport, especially those in San José, seem to have fallen in love with Rudy's story.
January 23 was declared Rudy Galindo Day by the mayor of San José, he handled the ceremonial "first puck" at a Sharks game; articles have been written about him in national magazines and newspapers; and of course, fans ask for Rudy's autograph everywhere he goes.
In addition to being Rudy's coach, Laura also acts as his press
agent. Although she accompanies him to all his appearances, she still finds
his new fame a bit overwhelming.
"I don't think you ever get used to it," she says. "Having someone come up and ask Rudy for his autograph is sort of different, because I still look at him as my brother."
With the new fame have come offers for books about him and a starring role in a television sitcom. Rudy says he won't consider taking any of them up until after Worlds. But he does think he'd be an excellent candidate to endorse one product, if only the company would ask him. "Freeze-It hair spray," he says and asks me to touch his stiff hair. I do and Laura laughs.
"I think they only sell it in East San José, for the mall-hair girls," says Rudy. He holds his hand to his hair like a can of hair spray and makes a spraying hiss.
All joking aside (at least for the moment), we talk about the East San José neighborhood where he grew up. A trailer park seems like a small and possibly confining place for an aspiring young ice skater, but Rudy says the living room of his mother's trailer always felt large enough for him to practice his leaps and jumps and that he never knocked anything over.
As we talk more about his neighborhood, I'm reminded that the vast majority of the "rags-to-riches" tales of Latino athletes are about boxers. The sensational spiels on these athletes usually sound something like this: "Instead of fighting in the streets, he fought in the ring." (Think of East Los Angeles's Oscar de la Hoya) Such logic suggests that violence is an inborn characteristic of young men living in the barrio, and that their only options are to fight-either legally or illegally.
Rudy's story throws a curve into this line of thought. He acknowledges that some people have been quick to incorporate cultural politics into his story, simply because he is the first Mexican-American to win the U.S. Figure Skating Championship. The most blatant example of this is a misquote incorrectly attributed to him and reprinted over and over.
The quote, "It's hard being a Mexican-American in an All-American sport," was to be inscribed on a statue across from the San Jose Arena honoring Rudy and other local skaters. When I ask him about the quote, he responds quickly.
"I didn't say that." Then Rudy goes on to explain, "We gave an interview and [the reporter] asked, 'Do you think being Mexican in this sport is hard?' And I said, 'No, it's not. But' And I didn't do a clean [yes or no] quote. Then later, they asked if I thought ice skating was an All-American sport, and I said, 'Yeah, it can be, but there's a lot of Asians breaking through' So they just found things and created the text. I didn't like it and they said, 'If you don't sign, you're not going to be part of the statue.' When they threatened us, we got our lawyer to help us."
The quote was eventually changed to read simply: "National Champion." The media never
discussed how this change came about.
"We've told [newspapers] that the quote wasn't ours, but they don't write that," says Rudy. "They want that controversy. They just keep saying, 'Rudy Galindo, National Champion who is quoted as saying: 'It's hard to be . . .'"
Rudy says this experience has made him more cautious about the media. He grabs my tape recorder and, with a sly smile says, "That's why I know where the stop button is!" We both laugh and I ask him how he feels about the way the media has dealt with the issue of his being gay.
A common approach reporters take is to write about the AIDS-related deaths of his brother and two coaches, using them as a way to lead into his sexuality. I expect this somewhat tacky approach to upset him.
"I don't bother with it," Rudy simply states. "I don't have any control over reporters. I just say what I have to say and they just do what they want to do. I go in there, I skate, go back to the hotel, and get on a plane and go home. They keep emphasizing being openly gay. That has nothing to do with
my skating. I make it a point to just let my skating speak for itself."
Obviously, it has.
Yet his words carry much weight. His growing popularity reminds him of this. "I'm proud to be a Mexican-American," says Rudy. "I don't think I really realized how much support I'd receive from the Latino community. And it was nice that I could sort of be a role model and show that you don't have to go into gangs. I didn't, and I had my chances, but I chose to stick to the rink. It's like that old line everyone always says to athletes, 'Just stick with your dreams and continue.' And it's right, you know?"