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Martha Duffy/San Jose

JOAN CRISTOBAL IS PROUD OF HER skating and proud of her rink. She practices where the U.S. national champ, Rudy Galindo, trains. More than that, Galindo has taken an interest in her. He even devised the two-minute program, complete with a double Salchow, that she will use in juvenile competition. “It’s great,” says Joan, who is 10. “He makes up all this stuff and gives good advice.” His counsel? “Push, push, push.”

This year Galindo, 26, is staging his own ultimate push. He was the surprise winner at the nationals, held in January in his hometown of San Jose, California. For him and his sister Laura, who is his coach, confidant and No. 1 fan, it was sweet vindication. Next week he wants to build on that victory by winning the world title in Edmonton, Alberta.

In truth, no matter how spectacular Galindo is in Canada, it will be tough to match his triumph before the home folks. It was one of those ineffable moments when the audience sensed almost from the start that this athlete is triumphant, truly unbeatable. He seemed to fly through the long program, set to the surging, romantic music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Dick Button, the unflappable ABC commentator, shouted, “Now that’s guts.” His less experienced microphone partner, Brian Boitano, was reduced to giggles of delight. Ken Shelley, the last man to win the nationals in both single and pairs competition (in 1972) said, “You see so few performances that will stay with you. There were no flaws–just a beautiful moment to see.”

In the “kiss-and-cry” area afterward, Galindo, Laura and his friend, choreographer John Brancato, exulted, hugging, weeping, leaping around. It looked as if they already knew he had won. But the champ describes three distinct stages of elation: first, when he was sure he had skated well enough to make the world team; second, when the first of two perfect scores of 6.0 was flashed; third, when the computer pushed his name up to first place.

Galindo also chanted four names: Jess, George, Jim, Rick. He is known as a hard-luck skater for good reason. Galindo has been a national winner previously, but as 1992 Olympic ladies champion Kristi Yamaguchi’s pairs partner. In 1990, two years before they were to go to the Olympics, she told him she was devoting all her energy to solo competition. Galindo was upset, not so much for himself as for his father. Jess, a trucker, was in dire health at the time, and he told Rudy he was holding on to see him make the Olympic team. Says Galindo: “A half-hour after I told him [Kristi and I] had broken up, I saw him sitting there with a tear running down from his eye. That’s what made me angry. So I decided to train in singles. I figured it was easier to deal with myself.”

But Galindo had much more to deal with than himself. His pairs coach, Jim Hulick, had already died of AIDS, and his next mentor, Rick Inglesi, also became stricken with the disease. (He died last year.) Jess Galindo eventually succumbed to a heart attack in 1993. Finally, Rudy’s brother George, 10 years his senior, contracted AIDS. The period before George’s death, also in 1993, was a parlous time for Galindo. “For eight months, I drove George to the hospital every day,” he says. “I carried him to the bath and changed his diapers. I got numb–to all the suffering around me, numb even to death itself. Nothing got through to me except skating in the morning. It was my only release.”

Galindo privately vowed to rebuild his career. He dieted his way from 160 pounds to 135. “For pairs you need lifting strength. For singles you need to be light enough to jump well.” But he became a chronic advice taker, and not of the push, push, push variety. Judges and other rinkside seers are very free with their opinions. Says the skater: “They’d say, ‘Skate faster, put in a spin here, more footwork there.’ It was a great mistake to listen.”

After finishing a disastrous eighth in the 1995 nationals, Galindo again took stock. He stopped training for a while, mostly to earn more money, and decided that henceforth he would skate for himself only. He is known for his musicality and clean, balletic line, and he and Brancato spun out a simple, elegant short program to Johann Pachelbel’s Canon. In a way it was a declaration of independence. Says Galindo: “Everyone else had fast short programs, so I wanted a slow one.” The long showpiece was fashioned with jazz dancer-choreographer Sharlene Franke, who called the staccato moves to Tchaikovsky “freestyle movement with high kicks and leaps–kind of like Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson and what you see on MTV.” Not a bad combo.

When the inseparable Rudy and Laura start to talk, the most common opener is, “After we won the nationals…” The victory truly changed their lives. Now there is an agent, a tour, deals in the works. Before the nationals, the big money in skating bypassed this modest team. Even before the tragedies of the early ’90s, life had not been easy. Jess Galindo had been a busy trucker, carting rocket fuel from Gilroy, California, to Carson City, Nevada. When both his younger children pleaded for skating lessons, he provided them–and settled for a mobile home. Rudy and his mother Margaret, who used to push the living-room furniture aside so he could “skate” at home, still live there.

Galindo is gay, one of the first skaters to acknowledge his orientation. That doesn’t help him with the skating Establishment, which prefers homosexual male skaters to hide their preference. But that problem and any others shrank with the big victory. The next day, agents clogged Laura’s phone line. Producer Tom Collins signed him up for the Campbell’s Soups spring tour, for which Galindo will get about $200,000. In fact, Collins invited him for the end of the winter tour, and Galindo was thrilled. “It’s wonderful!” he says. “You just step on the bus and get out there and skate. There’s food and therapy, and you just leave your luggage outside the door. It beats east San Jose!”

For now, though, he has turned his back on the good life to concentrate on Edmonton, training and nursing a slightly injured ankle. The field he faces is closely competitive. Canada’s Elvis Stojko just landed a quadruple jump in a Paris competition. Russia’s Alexei Urmanov raises competency to genius level with his reliable if bland programs. America’s Todd Eldredge is a deeply experienced skater with a high jump. What Galindo brings to the party is artistry. As Shelley says, “What Rudy has in his favor is a better line and more interesting programs, plus a fantastic sense of revolution, which is great in combination jumps.”

Before leaving for the competition, Galindo will go through his usual drill. He will kiss two stuffed monkeys dolls that Yamaguchi once gave him. Then he will round up the cats, Sky and Trucker (named for his father), and buss them. He used to have more superstitious routines, like lacing up the skate on his landing foot first. But he has eliminated that. “Now,” he says with considerable determination, “I rely on training and hard work.” And on memories of Jess, George, Jim and Rick.

–With reporting by Alice Park/New York

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