Note: This tribute has been updated to include comments from Mike Gallagher’s wife, Tyna, and additional photos from John Estle.
Mike “The Eagle” Gallagher was a diehard baseball fan. Several springs ago, he accompanied his nordic-skiing cronies, John Estle and Peter Ashley, to Tampa, Florida for some sunshine and the rituals of spring training. A three-time Olympic cross-country skier and head coach of the U.S. Ski Team from 1980-86, Gallagher was in hog heaven hanging with his buddies and watching his beloved New York Yankees tuning up for the season, Estle said recently on the phone.
The trip to Florida was the invention of Estle and Ashley, also former U.S. Ski Team (USST) coaches, who convinced Gallagher to join them. It took a little coercion, because Gallagher was scheduled to get a hip replacement that same week. In the end, Gallagher rescheduled the surgery and left muddy Vermont for balmy Florida. The trio bunked up with Estle’s partner’s family in Tampa.
During their stay, their host family held a Passover celebration. In remembering the trip, Estle chuckled and said Gallagher was quite caught up in the traditional Jewish celebration. This Irish-Catholic boy from Vermont had never experienced anything like it and loved being included in the large family gathering. In fact, after a week of watching his heroes Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera playing the game, it was the Passover that Gallagher raved about.
A “man’s man” is how Estle described Gallagher, who passed away at home in Pittsfield, Vt., on Thursday, his 72nd birthday.
“He embodied physicality and sport, yet he was very spiritual and humanistic at the same time,” Estle said. “When you visited, you were the best friend he ever had. He always made you feel good.”
The Man, The Legend
On Oct. 3, 1941, Gallagher was born in Yonkers, N.Y. Raised in Rutland, Vt., Gallagher got his first ski lessons from his father, who served in World War II in the fabled 10th Mountain Division. He went on to become an accomplished runner and alpine skier, laying the foundation for nordic skiing, which would eventually become his life.
Kicking and gliding on wartime skis he modified for racing, Gallagher won his first high school race as a member of the Rutland High School team. He went on to captain his team, and won a Junior National championship in 1959.
After graduating from Rutland High, Gallagher took a post-graduate year at Vermont Academy then set his sights on Colorado. He attended the University of Colorado, motivated by training with friends Bob Gray and Mike Elliott. This was the beginning of a long-term friendship and the rock upon which U.S. cross-country skiing would grow for many years.
“That trio of Elliott, Gray and Gallagher carried the program for a ton of years, made huge sacrifices, and were all wonderful people living life to the fullest,” their former U.S. Ski Team (USST) coach Marty Hall wrote in an email.
Life was good in Colorado for Gallagher’s freshman year, but then Gray and Elliott moved on, forcing Gallagher to carry on without his training buddies for three more seasons. Seeking more opportunity in skiing, Gallagher set off for Norway, where his ski training took off.
He went on to make three Olympic teams in 1964, 1968, and 1972, and three World Championships. In addition, Gallagher notched nine national titles. His proudest result was 19th in the 50-kilometer classic race at Holmenkollen, Norway, in 1968. He accomplished all of his off-season training while holding down a full-time job. Gallagher’s love for skiing and legendary work ethic is what defined him for the rest of his life.
Gallagher applied his talent and formidable energy to bike racing in New England, a sport in which he excelled for many years. In 1972, he was the 25-mile road biking national champion.
Retired from racing, but still enthralled with the sport, Gallagher turned to coaching. He was head coach of the USST from 1980-86, Olympic-team coach in 1980, 1984, and 1992, and a high-school coach for 17 years. With Gallagher at the helm, Bill Koch won the overall World Cup title in 1982.
The nordic vice president of Fischer USA, Ashley summed up Gallagher’s insightful coaching style in a 2011 interview with FasterSkier. “Mike was the perfect guy for Kochie because he allowed him to do things in a different way, was flexible when he needed to be and would stand on things when he needed to.”
Gallagher vast knowledge of all things nordic led him to employment in several ski companies over his career, among them Splitkein, Hexcel, Edsbyn, and Elan.
For many years, Gallagher shared his love and expertise of skiing as the nordic director at Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, Vt. He also taught skiing at the nearby Mountain Meadows in Killington.
In 2007, Gallagher was inducted into the Vermont Skiing Hall of Fame. He was also into the Mount Washington Road Race Hall of Fame in 2011, a race he won from 1968 to ’71.
Gallagher is survived by his wife, Tyna, sons Sean and Jesse, and a grandson.
Athlete, Coach, Mentor, Friend: Remembering Mike Gallagher
Some people are larger than life. Gallagher was one of them. When you think of throwing rocks into a pond, the largest ones make the biggest splash and send the ripples furthest. Gallagher touched the lives of many because his ripples reached the far edges of the pond. – Nancy Fiddler
Many people met Gallagher through cross-country skiing and then became friends for life. Famed nordic announcer Peter Graves is one, remembering in an email message how he met Gallagher.
“I first met Mike in the late ’60s when he came to my high school to do a clinic. With his typical verve he talked about what a great sport XC was,” Graves wrote in an email. “With that and his sparkling USA warm-up, I became a follower. Over the years, we shared special moments of reflection in his sauna and pondered things, sport and the meaning of life. What was said in the sauna always stayed in the sauna. What he leaves is a rich tapestry of goodness, of inspiring countless people to ski and enjoy the richness of life. He was a smart guy with deep feelings, and as an Irishman myself, I could always understand the joy he felt in singing his Irish songs. He touched so many people, I’m going to miss him for a long, long time.”
Teammate and close friend Elliott recounts in an email how, on a 2012 visit to New Hampshire, he drove 330 miles round trip just to have dinner with Gallagher and Gray. The three remained friends for years after they dominated the U.S. skiing scene.
Elliott and Gallagher had the best kind of competitive relationship. They raced against each other at Junior Nationals and in college, and ended up teammates on the 1964, 1968, and 1972 Olympic teams as well as the 1966 and 1970 World Championship squads.
“We met in 1959 at the Junior National Championships. We always had a friendly rivalry training and racing,” Elliott wrote in an email. “Michael had ‘XC1’ on his Vermont vanity license plate. That license plate was a huge motivating factor for me because I wanted my results to force him to change his vanity license to ‘XC2’. Whenever I did not want to train, I just had to think of that license plate and then I was out the door training.”
Elliott also remembers Gallagher’s infectious singing. “When he called his friends on the telephone and they answered, he would often break into an Irish song. We all knew who was on the other end. He cultivated many friends from all walks of life. He really was such a good guy.”
Gallagher was the consummate tough mountain man, but Elliott saw a gentler side of him on their many travels together. “He once dressed as Santa Claus and passed out presents to children at a resort where we were staying in Scandinavia,” Elliott wrote. “His wonderful laugh and his accent made him a believable Santa Claus to the children. I have nothing but the fondest memories of my life with Michael.”
As competitors and avid outdoorsmen, Elliott and Gallagher shared many adventures. “Gallagher came out to Colorado in 1973 and we went backpacking,” Elliott explained. “He was not really fond of heights and I really took advantage of that fact and enjoyed scaring the hell out of him in the Colorado mountains. He was a very good sport about the whole situation. He loved fly fishing in those high mountain lakes.”
One of the many athletes Gallagher coached, Kevin Brochman remembered how Gallagher used humor to get him through tough situations, a behavior Brochman still resorts to. A two-time Olympian, Brochman also recalled Gallagher’s discomfort in high places, something that seemed to make him more human.
“Mike was a great coach and led the team to a US men’s best, 4th in the world, in 1982,” Brochman wrote on Facebook. “I felt honored to be part of his tenure from 1981-86. HE LOVED TO LAUGH. He did not care too much for the gondola ride up to Dachstein Glacier though!”
As a coach, Gallagher set the bar high for his athletes, yet he stood behind them in every situation. The U.S. men’s squad, under his direction, achieved huge success.
“When Michael was the USST XC coach, he often traveled to where the national team skier lived to help them individually with their training,” Elliott explained. “He was instrumental in helping Bill Koch win the World Cup. Bill has nothing but kind, complimentary things to say about the job Gallagher performed.”
Ashley’s long friendship with Gallagher began at Colorado, where Gallagher helped save Ashley from a near-death experience following a collision with a tree. Later, Ashley and Gallagher coached the USST together. Ashley will always remember what he believes to be one of Gallagher’s major contributions to the sport of skiing in this country.
“Gallagher was a man who stood by his decisions, which served him well during the skating revolution,” he said on the phone. “He advocated for allowing the athletes to move the way they wanted to on a race course at a time when many of the international ski leaders were against skating. Gallagher was able to represent the USA’s desire to skate in the international coaching arena. We have a lot to thank him for, in that regard.”
Ashley, Gallagher, and Ruff Patterson brought skating back from the World Cup to the U.S. racing and recreational-skiing population. Their dissemination of skating knowledge put many Americans on skate skis in the ’80s.
Gallagher’s energy and personality were the driving forces in his coaching. As 1984 Olympian Sue Long Wemyss stated online: “I was fortunate to be on the USST and to get to know Mike during the years he was head coach. He was so lively, so positive. He leaves a huge hole.”
Helping Koch top the World Cup was just a small part of the impact Gallagher had on nordic skiing in the U.S. His knowledge was vast, his reach deep and his vision global. According to Ashley, “He had a huge influence on the younger skiers and was something of a father figure to many. The kids really looked up to him.”
Former USST skier Tim Kelley was one of the many juniors inspired by Gallagher. He also weighed in on his memory of Gallagher on Facebook.
“Besides being a hero for U.S. cross-country skiing, Gallagher was always very supportive of the young guns. He enthusiastically welcomed newcomers into the XC skiing cult. I remember once at a junior camp at his place doing a circuit strength workout at his stations in the woods. And then we finished off the workout by helping him lift logs up for the cabin he was building.”
University of Denver Head Coach David Stewart echoed Kelley in another comment: “Gallagher was a big influence on me when I was just a Bill Koch League racer, inspiring me and many others with his enthusiasm for every level of the sport.”
Gallagher expected a lot, but gave a lot. His dreams are being carried on by the many who were influenced by his spirit. Cambridge Sports Union Head Coach Rob Bradlee carries on some of the best Gallagher traditions in his own work.
“I remember him coaching me at a training day at Putney when I was 15,” he wrote online. “With his enthusiastic urging, I did more push-ups than I thought I could ever do. His energy was infectious.”
There were valuable lessons beyond the push-ups, Bradlee explained. “As a non-competitive skier I was always impressed by how kind and encouraging he was to me. That I loved skiing was good enough for him. And in the long run, he helped me be a better coach by modeling that inclusive behavior.”
Dartmouth coach Ruff Patterson and Gallagher go back a long ways. They have worked together, recreated together, and shared a lot of good times. Patterson was Gallagher’s best man when he married Tyna in 2002.
“Gallagher was a strong man who expected things from people,” Patterson said on the phone. “He was direct and didn’t mind saying what he thought. He pushed all of us as hard as he pushed himself. I wanted to strangle him one day and hug him the next! We were incredibly close.”
The Quintessential Vermonter
“Taking in nature and spending time outdoors is what life was like with Mike. It could be as simple as sitting on our deck, looking out at the mountains sipping coffee and just taking in the beauty of our surroundings. Even though it was peaceful and it was also energizing. Mike was an avid fisherman and hunter, who could turn almost any outing into an adventure with his gift of storytelling. Mike had a joke or two for almost any topic, it was truly amazing how he could remember so many jokes. Even though he loved living off the beaten track, almost recluse, whenever there was a gathering Mike was sure to be the center of attention. With a twinkle in his eyes and his voice booming with excitement he would draw everyone into the story or joke he was telling. While his accomplishments were bigger than life, he was modest and would only talk about them when asked. He was warm, affectionate and fun-loving, he enjoyed putting a smile on someone’s face. He touched so many lives in a positive way, including mine. I am so proud of the man known as Michael Gallagher, he was the love of my life, my soulmate and my heart is breaking.” — Tyna Gallagher
Gallagher embraced the Vermont lifestyle; he built the home he lived in and stayed busy and active to the end of his life by tending his garden, mowing, keeping bees, cutting wood, and hunting and fishing.
He raised his boys, Sean and Jesse, to be strong outdoorsmen as well as excellent skiers, and loved the time he spent in the woods with them.
Visitors to his Pittsfield home remember the sauna sessions. Between plunges into the refreshing pond, Gallagher told his famous stories and occasionally broke into song. Gallagher delighted everyone who took part in living large with him.
Elliott succinctly put into words what many are thinking: “I wish I would have spent more time with him.”
Nancy Fiddler is a two-time Olympian and 14-time National Champion. She has been coaching juniors and masters for 20 years in Mammoth Lakes and Truckee, Calif., and most recently in Sun Valley, Idaho. She lives most of the time in the Eastern Sierra with her husband and daughter and is currently trying to get in touch with her creative side through writing.