Rudy Galindo thought this day never would come. If he ever dreamed of it, he would push the idea out of his mind. How could he win the men's national figure skating championship? How would the conservative world of figure skating ever allow an openly gay Mexican-American to take even third place, much less the national title, he had asked aloud.
Well, today it happened. Not third. But first. The national title, won in his own home town before a raucous crowd of 10,869 that rose to its feet 15 seconds before he finished his perfect long program in San Jose Arena.
"I'm still in shock," said Galindo, at age 26 the second-oldest man to win a national singles title.
In the women's competition, 15-year-old Michelle Kwan completed seven triple jumps to become the youngest national women's champion since Peggy Flemming in 1964, and defending national champion Nicole Bobek dramatically withdrew right before she was to skate because her tender right ankle swelled after she warmed up.
Tonia Kwiatkowski, 24, finished second with a brilliant program featuring six triples, and 13-year-old phenom Tara Lipinski came in third.
The U.S. Figure Skating Association's international committee decided afterward to deny Bobek an opportunity to compete at the March world championships in Edmonton. The decision was a surprise, because Bobek was the 1995 world bronze medalist and is a much more polished skater that Lipinski. However, the committee didn't take kindly to the fact that Bobek chose to perform with a touring skating company in December rather than rehabilitate her ankle.
Galindo's victory earlier in the day was one of the grandest upsets in figure skating history. No one could remember another so great, another time someone who was eighth last year, who never had been higher than fifth in seven national men's competitions, who was so lightly regarded that he wasn't included in the media guide, rose up to beat the top skaters in the country and take the title.
Galindo landed eight triple jumps, and each was lofty, lilting and perfect. His balletic skating won the first-place marks of seven of the nine judges; two amazingly voted for defending national champion Todd Eldredge, who skated an uncharacteristically shaky program with only five clean triples. What they were thinking, no one knew.
Eldredge finished second; upstart Dan Hollander came in third. All three qualified for the worlds.
Two-time national champion Scott Davis was dreadful, making five mistakes in the final three minutes of his program to drop to fourth. Michael Weiss, the 19-year-old from Fairfax who was fifth after the short program, finished fifth overall despite a fourth-place ranking in the long program. Weiss, four years younger than anyone else in the top five, did not fall on any of his eight triples, but had trouble with the landings on three of them. His steady rise in the senior men's division continued; he was eighth in 1994 and sixth last year.
Galindo -- who has said he never fits the image the judges want with his hoop earring, goatee and extremely dramatic moves -- gasped in delight at the sight of two perfect 6.0s from the judges for his artistry. It was the first time a male skater has received a perfect score at nationals since Paul Wylie received six 6.0s in the short and long programs at the 1990 nationals.
A poor man who had lost his brother and two coaches to AIDS, who doesn't have a car and often rides a bicycle to practice, who lived in a trailer park until recently, Galindo came into the nationals flat broke. He called his sister "Bank of Laura" for the financial help he gave her. He joked about holding an "I'll work for food" sign on the street corner.
Galindo quit skating for seven months last year to teach skating in order to make enough money to pay for a four-month run to the nationals. He entered the nationals only because they were in his home town. Otherwise, he probably would have retired.
Now, his 4 1/2 minutes on the ice may have changed his life forever.
Galindo will get at least $20,000 in grants from the USFSA -- and hopes for much more. High-powered agent Mike Burg, as well as a television executive, expressed interest in signing him within an hour of his victory. The lucrative tours and shows are sure to follow.
Interestingly enough, this is not Galindo's first national title. He twice won the pairs championship with Kristi Yamaguchi, who left him to skate singles in 1991. She won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics; he was devastated, experimented with drugs, wallowed in self-pity.
Galindo, who has said that he is gay, also has said he did not believe the judges would give him anything more than third place -- and several skaters would have to fall for even that to happen.
But he never figured he would skate so well before a friendly, very vocal crowd while others fell by the wayside.
For the USFSA, it was a day unlike any other.
"I've never heard any comments inside the judges room about" his ethnic background or his sexuality, said USFSA President Morry Stillwell. But Stillwell later said, "There are a lot more weird people in this sport than Rudy, and you all know that." Notes: In ice dancing, former national champions Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow upset defending champs Renee Roca and Gorsha Sur, but both qualified for the worlds. CAPTION: Rudy Galindo, who had not been higher than fifth in seven national men's events, hears cheers of hometown crowd.