As the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games progress, one face is arguably stealing more attention than many others: 28-year-old Adam Rippon, one of the first openly gay athletes to represent the United States in the Winter Olympics. Rippon’s star has received a significant amount of positive media coverage, a dramatic shift from the treatment queer athletes have traditionally faced.
But Rippon’s fame (and freedom) is largely thanks to the work of other queer athletes before him — like Rudy Galindo, the most decorated Latinx figure skater in the United States.
A California native, Galindo grew up skating, with his family foregoing luxuries like home-buying in order to fund their son’s passion.
“My dad gave everything, his whole paycheck, so my sister and I could have skating lessons and stay off the streets,” Galindo said in an interview with NBC. “He worked hard, and we never could afford to move into a house because all of his earnings went for our lessons.”
That investment paid off: Galindo skated his way to numerous distinctions and championships at a young age, both in single and pairs skating. Galindo’s former coach, Jim Hulick, paired the athlete with eventual Olympic and World Champion figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, before she opted to pursue a solo career. As a pair, the duo won the 1988 World Junior title, going on to become U.S. National Champions in 1989 and 1990. Galindo even lived with Yamaguchi’s family for several years. She has described him as “like a brother.”
Galindo’s singles career also brought him fame. The figure skater won the 1987 World Junior title, in addition to being the 1996 U.S. National Champion and 1996 World Bronze medalist. He retired that year, going on to tour with ice show Champions on Ice (COI) until 2007, when COI went out of business. He now coaches at Sharks Ice San Jose.
For better or worse, much of Galindo’s legacy is in the context of his sexuality. Shortly before winning his national title, Galindo came out as gay. The announcement made him the first openly gay figure skating champion in the United States, a major distinction at the time. Four years later, Galindo revealed that he was HIV-positive. He began treatment around that time. The disease notably took a toll on Galindo’s life in more ways than one — his brother, George, died from AIDS in 1994; two coaches, Hulick and Rick Inglesi, both died from the disease as well.
Still, Galindo persevered, going on to coach a new generation of figure skaters, including Yamaguchi’s daughter, Emma Hedican. Speaking with NBC, Galindo downplayed his historic role in the sports world.
“I guess I was ahead of my time,” he said. “But I wanted to be me, to be out of the box, to be over the top, and some judges back then, well, they wanted a certain type of skater.”
That’s debatable, back in the 1990s and today. In 2018, the sports world still poses a challenge for queer and transgender athletes. While a record 13 openly LGBTQ athletes are competing in Pyeongchang, they represent only a tiny sliver of the overwhelming number of athletes competing more broadly. Many still face extraordinary stigma, backlash, and a shortage of sponsorship opportunities — the income many athletes rely on to survive.
Rippon’s popularity is an indicator that things are closer than ever to shifting, but that isn’t saying much. It’s still unclear if the figure skater will draw the same interest from brands that his straight counterparts have. And that’s just Rippon, a white gay male. Queer women are still struggling with a major invisibility problem, something made clear by the lack of attention given to athletes like out speed skater Brittany Bowe. Openly queer athletes of color, along with transgender and non-binary athletes, have remained notably absent from the world stage.
Galindo, a queer HIV-positive Latinx man, never made it to the Olympics. His early trailblazing played a key role in allowing athletes like Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy to excel at the Games, but Galindo lamented the dearth of figure skaters like himself in the sport more generally to NBC.
“It is an expensive sport, with costs for training, travel, coaches, choreographers, ice time, and costumes,” he said. “I was lucky that my father gave up so much for me; I wish there were more Latino skaters because it would be really nice to see.”