This article is the third profile in the ‘Where Are They Now’ series, made possible through the generous support of Fischer Sports. Learn more about their products at www.fischersports.com.
PITTSFIELD, Vt. — The “XC1” license plate on the Subaru wagon should have been a dead giveaway. Instead, it took a minute to be sure the man walking across the general-store parking lot was Mike Gallagher, one of the pivotal players who put U.S. nordic skiing on the international map.
Inside the store, appropriately named the “Pitt-Stop” after the town with about 550 residents, Gallagher greeted a few familiar neighbors and affectionately asked the clerk to prepare his turkey-BLT sub without onions.
“They don’t come with onions,” she said, kindly. “Oh, no?” the 70-year-old Gallagher said about one of his favorite grinders. “Well, all right then.”
Before proceeding a few miles from town to his home at the height of the land, the three-time Olympian and former U.S. Ski Team head coach visited the postmaster.
Up at his log cabin on 50 acres of land surrounded by national forest, Gallagher revealed four green-and-spotted apples the postmaster gave him. She thought they were interesting, he said with a laugh. He had apple trees in his yard.
Placing them on the woodpile that filled his front porch, Gallagher explained he used to chop the wood himself. Now, he had it delivered, but even after having a hip replacement a year and a half ago, he still stacked it.
Before eating lunch inside the house he built in the 1970s, Gallagher pointed to a green square nailed outside his garage. High above the ground, the original “XC1” Vermont license plate attested to his ski career; the nine-time U.S. nordic champion received it in the ’70s upon being the top racer in the country.
With prestige came egos, Gallagher said. He had plenty of stories to illustrate his.
A veteran member of the U.S. Ski Team in 1968, he remembered when about 10 teammates set a running record on Vermont’s Long Trail, which extends nearly 300 miles from Canada to Massachusetts.
A year later, he and the team took on another training excursion: bicycling some 1,000 miles around Vermont.
“I had this license plate, but I was not a biker,” Gallagher said, with a smile. “I had a 10-speed bike. … It didn’t have those fancy toe clips. I didn’t wear those fruity-looking black pants and those pointy Italian shoes with these clips on the bottom. I was a real man. I got on the bike and pushed the pedals.”
A graduate student at Springfield College in Massachusetts at the time, Gallagher joined his teammates on weekends to prepare. Meanwhile, many of them — which he described as bikers — trained more seriously for the ride.
“They did stuff like get in a line and rotate the lead and stuff like that,” he said. “But real men don’t do that type of stuff. You just get on the bike and go up front and stay there.”
In tennis shoes, running shorts and a T-shirt, the helmet-less Gallagher embarked on the cycling journey with the group. He treated as a race, avoiding the pull line and leading his peers by several bike lengths.
On the last day of the ride, the team approached the last 110 miles in similar fashion, drafting one another and taking turns breaking the wind. Gallagher couldn’t take it.
“I take off, ” he said. “For about 40 miles, I go off the front and just stay there, and they’re doing all this kind of stuff, staying about a quarter mile behind me.”
They regrouped at lunch in Manchester, Vt., about 50 miles from their final destination in Putney at the home of their head coach, John Caldwell. From there, they started to climb Bromley Mountain.
“This is where Mikey was gonna get his lesson,” Gallagher said. “He was gonna get spanked. All of a sudden, one of the guys goes off in front … and the next one goes, and the next one goes, and I am dropped … dropped bad. And I was Mr. XC1.”
Exhausted and about 20 minutes behind, Gallagher missed a shortcut into Putney, which saved the others about 20 miles. Laughing with tears in his eyes, he said he didn’t even have a water bottle.
When he eventually wheeled into Caldwell’s driveway about 1 ½ hours after the team, he saw his license plate, which had been chalked with two zeros: “XC100.” Everyone was in the sauna, drinking beer and singing.
“I’ve had a long day and they put it to me,” he said. “Of course, with the ego I had, being as cocky as I was, I really deserved it. But boy, they put it to me bad.”
He couldn’t let that go. “Guess who went out and bought a racing bike?” he asked. “And some of those pointy Italian shoes and some of those black pants?”
Yes, he ended up in “a tight, flashy T-shirt and a helmet,” he said, and trained so hard he won a national time-trial championship in 1972. A few months before he claimed the 25-mile cycling crown, Gallagher skied in his third Olympics, helping the men’s relay finish 12th and placing 30th in the 30 k.
He had previously cracked the top 30 in the 1968 Olympics (22nd in the 50 k, 27th in the 30 k), and was 38thin the 15 k at the 1964 Games.
“I was a wicked-good hill climber,” Gallagher said of his competitive cycling career. “Tremendous time trialist, terrible pack rider.”
He chuckled for a while and continued to eat his BLT.
That was the thing about Gallagher. Spending more than three decades in the sport at its highest level (as a USST athlete from the early ’60s to the mid-’70s, as its head coach in the ’80s and an assistant in the early’90s), he told it like it was, with an exceptional memory that lent to storytelling.
“There’s a couple things outside my skiing that I’m quite proud of,” he said.
The Mount Washington Road Race was high on the list. He won the 7.6-mile climb to the top of the 6,260-foot mountain four times from 1968-1971. In June, he was inducted into its Hall of Fame with two others: Daniel Kihara of Kenya and Derek Froude of New Zealand.
He would’ve gone after a fifth-straight title, too, if it hadn’t been for an incident on the auto road in ’71.
Before the race, he overheard Boston-Marathon winner Amby Burfoot telling reporters that he didn’t expect to lose to a skier. He didn’t forget that.
About 1 ½ miles from the finish, Gallagher checked back to see Burfoot 20 seconds behind him. A car trailed him even closer, beeping as Gallagher cut across the switchbacks.
“Hell, I had the right of way,” Gallagher said. “And he came up and hit me and I rolled up onto the hood and fell off on the side.”
He stood up and saw Burfoot just down the road. That motivated him to run even faster.
“I put on about a half-mile kick right then,” Gallagher said. He won by nearly a minute.
Starting from Scratch
Inside his log cabin, Gallagher glanced at the large, rounded beams overhead. They were heavy, he said, and he installed them on his own.
When he bought the property in 1967, Gallagher wasn’t a builder. He considered it a risk in some ways as a full-time athlete at the height of his career.
“It was tough in the old days,” he said. “I worked 70 hours a week to train 70 hours a week.”
By trade, he was a teacher, working long hours in colleges like Castleton and Johnson State in Vermont to fit in semesters between seasons. Trained in physical eduation, he created a Sport and Society course at Johnson State.
In 1974, his Pittsfield home burned to the ground. Gallagher and his first wife were in Bermuda at the time, and as they switched hotels throughout the week, the bad news never reached them.
“The message that our house burned down was always one jump behind us,” he said. “(We) got back to Boston, jumped in a car and drove up to a cellar hole here.”
Six months later, Gallagher finished building their new home, which he did himself except for the plumbing and bricklaying. He didn’t have any architectural plans, he said, just an ambition to work.
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., and raised near Rutland, Vt., Gallagher began a family of his own in Pittsfield with two boys: Jesse, now 34, and Sean, 31. Both talented skiers, Jesse went to the University of Alaska and Sean skied for the University of Vermont.
Jesse became a big-game hunting guide, spending some of the year in Alaska and traveling to Africa last summer. When he wasn’t on the road, Gallagher said his oldest son lived in a small cabin on his property, back in the woods without a driveway.
Also in Pittsfield, Sean lived closer to town with his 2 ½-year-old son, Andrew.
“He’s a keeper,” Gallagher said of his grandson.
He said the same about his second wife, Tyna, whom he married 10 years ago and recently built a horse barn for.
“Everything in my life except my training and my devotion to my wife is what I call and organized mess,” he said as he walked around the barn, built for Bud, the horse, and their three dogs: Roscoe, Thunder and Jaeger.
On the other side, Gallagher pointed to his beehives surrounded by an electric fence. As of early November, two of three had survived.
A self-described, small-time beekeeper, Gallagher said he did his best to cultivate and protect the hives for the benefit of the environment. Pollination was good, he said, and comb honey was healthier than jar honey. Bears were his biggest problem.
Jesse helped by bringing spiked-bear boards from Alaska and laying them around the hives. Gallagher also placed muskrat traps nearby. “You try all your tricks because a hive like this is worth probably $300,” Gallagher said. “A bear comes in, then you’re out of luck.”
Elsewhere on the property, Gallagher said he spent most of his time gardening and mowing. With nine acres to cover at least once a month and four acres a week, he mostly mowed.
“Not that I’m retired,” said Gallagher, an independent subcontractor for the last 16 years. “But I basically am.”
In May 2010, Gallagher had hip surgery that was both life-changing and hard to bounce back from. Without it, he would be on crutches or relying on a cane, he said. Before it, he couldn’t ski.
Last winter, he resumed his part-time job instructing skiers at Mountain Meadows in Killington, Vt., and planned to return in a few months. This year, he hoped he could skate ski.
“There’s no reason why I can’t,” he said. “I just wasn’t ready last winter, but the activity was good for me.”
Continuing the tour of his property, Gallagher walked toward a wooden hut on the edge of a heart-shaped pond. The green space beside it was where he married Tyna, who now works as an office manager and sells candles on the side.
Beyond the pond was a place he described as “special,” a 10-person sauna with a ski-memorabilia changing room.
Inside, ski tips from as early as the ’30s served as clothes hangers and posters of some elite nordic skiers — including Bill Koch and longtime friend Bob Gray — plastered the walls. He looked closely at a plate, which named every Swedish Olympic cross-country ski champion through 1977.
“(What) makes the difference between a great champion and other skiers, (is) that they can change their technique during a race to accommodate conditions,” Gallagher said. “They can change it from day to day, even sometimes from year to year.” Through the years and his experiences with top-tier skiers, Gallagher learned that.
‘An Organized Mess’
Back inside his home, Gallagher stood in his basement admiring his wax bench, which he used with the national team and with his sons. Well-worn, it appeared to be operational.
“I’ve got so much wax up here,” he said. “Literally, thousands of dollars of wax.”
He motioned toward the adjacent room: his office, or as he called it, “the museum.” He recalled an inscription above the library doors at the University of Colorado at Boulder, his alma mater.
“ ‘He or she who knows only their own generation remains always a child,’ ” Gallagher said. “So this is a lot of history of skiing, not just Mikey.”
The sauna had been just a warmup. This was a shrine to the sport with newspaper clippings, original photos, plaques and medals all holding pieces of history.
Pinned to the back wall, an action shot of Koch was at the heart of the collage. Gallagher pointed out two Norwegian coaches in the photograph, who were on their knees and straining to look under Koch’s skis. He won the World Cup race in Italy that day and the overall title that year in 1982.
Koch became the first American nordic skier to win a World Championship medal in ’82, after claiming an unprecedented silver at the ’76 Olympics.
“I coached him and he was one of my heroes,” Gallagher said. “And I’m one of his heroes. You know how that goes?”
After translating Norwegian and Swedish newspaper headlines, Gallagher shifted his focus to perhaps his biggest hero, his father. A member of the 10thMountain Division — a group of mountain-warfare soldiers formed in 1942 — his insignia hung on the wall.
Gallagher pointed out his father’s ice ax, which he used in World War II as a climber and downhill skier.
“I hang a lot of things on nails,” he said. “Jesse, about three years ago, said, ‘What are you gonna do with Grandpa Don’s ice ax?’ And I paused for a second, and he said, ‘Hang it on another nail?’ ”
Probably, he responded.
Jesse wanted it to climb Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. His father didn’t think he would go through with it.
“After he climbed the mountain, he gave it back to me,” Gallagher said. “ ‘Hang it on a nail.’ ”
Closing the door behind him, Gallagher turned around to face several posters of bald eagles. He was once so frustrated with a group of athletes, he told them, “I can’t fly with eagles if you ask me to train like a turkey!”
They responded by calling him “The Eagle.” “So today my nickname is,” he said, removing his cap. “The Bald Eagle.”
Testing the Waters
Before graduating Rutland High School in 1959, Gallagher earned early exposure with the national team at one of Caldwell’s training camps the fall of his senior year.
Fresh off his cross-country season, the Vermont state champion found himself in a perfect position at the snow-less camp, which resorted to running.
“I’m looking over my back the whole time at these guys who are training for the Olympics,” Gallagher said. “They can’t keep up. I said, ‘Whoa, this looks like the doors (are) open.’ ”
That winter, he won the Junior Olympics. In college, Gallagher wanted to surround himself with some of the best skiers he knew, so he chose to join Gray and Mike Elliott in Boulder. The three of them eventually dominated American racing.
After three years at CU, Gallagher — then a member of the U.S. Olympic training squad — took a year off to immerse himself with the team.
“By the end of the year, I was one frustrated puppy,” Gallagher said. “We had trained our butts off. … No other athletes in the world had trained any harder than some of us, but we weren’t trained right. We were more in shape to run and hike than we were to ski.”
He ventured to Norway that spring in search of a solution. He found it in the Norwegian training method.
“They did some silly son-of-a-gun thing called rollerskiing,” Gallagher said.
Upon returning to Colorado for his final year of college, he found his mind was elsewhere. With one semester left, he withdrew from CU and stayed in Europe to study the Norwegian system. He began rollerskiing, importing the three-wheeled skis to the U.S. and selling the first 200 pairs before they even landed.
For the rest of his ski career, Gallagher imported European items, such as skis, boots and bindings, and sold them out of his car at races. His eye for the market landed him jobs with ski companies, including Splitkein, Hexcel, Edsbyn and Elan, where he designed and tested fiberglass skis.
Even when he retired as an athlete in 1975, Gallagher maintained his part-time industry positions, which kept him in touch with the sport and its athletes before he returned to the scene in 1980, first as a private coach at the Lake Placid Olympics and then as the USST head coach from 1980-86.
“Basically, that’s how I got hired,” he said. “Because the racers had experience with me as an ex-athlete and a person that’s very knowledgeable and most of all, very enthusiastic.”
Peter Ashley, the U.S. women’s coach in the ’80s who worked with Gallagher, remembered him as an important figure during a transitional period in the sport. While people around the world resisted the skating technique, Gallagher fought for it.
“He brought some interesting openness to different ways of doing things,” said Ashley, now Fischer USA’s nordic division vice president.
“And you needed to because you had Bill Koch there. Mike was the perfect guy for Kochie because he allowed him to do things in a different way. … Flexible when he needed to be and would stand on things when he needed to.”
Personally, Ashley said Gallagher had a special impact on him as a freshman at the University of Colorado. In 1969, Gallagher helped save his life.
“We were out training one day and decided to take a tour,” Ashley said. “I ran into a tree and it was not exactly warm out there in Colorado.”
Several members of the group shed their clothing to cover Ashley and used pine-tree branches to insulate him. Some went to get help at the lodge, while the others stood by his side. He had destroyed his stomach muscles and could hear a few people quietly worrying if he was going to make it.
A couple of hours later, Ashley made it out safely on a toboggan. He raced at the NCAAs later that season.
How Far We’ve Come
For Gallagher, skiing was a lifelong sport and coaching became a passion. When he thought back to his career’s highlights, he said he missed coaching.
When skating disrupted the nordic world in the 1980s, Gallagher was hesitant at first. The Americans didn’t know how to do it, but Koch pushed them to experiment.
By the time his team got the hang of it around 1985, some others weren’t there yet. Gallagher remembered going to a meeting in Sweden, where an outraged technical delegate exclaimed: “ ‘Furthermore, our research shows that skating will damage women’s crotches!’ ”
“Ruff Patterson, who was my assistant coach, and I said, ‘Crotches?’ ” Gallagher recalled. “People were just going crazy.”
By 1986, skating was an accepted discipline. “I think it’s great the way it is now,” Gallagher said.
But evolution wasn’t easy to foresee. When U.S. Olympic biathlete Charlie Kellogg came to a summer practice with a pair of rollerskis — with the tips and tails cut off so they fit in his Saab — Gallagher was furious.
After cussing him up and down, Gallagher said, “ ‘How are you gonna get the kinesthetic feeling if you don’t have a ski on your foot?’ You can’t ski on a skate!’ ”
“Wrong,” Gallagher said, nearly 50 years later.
Earlier this year, Gallagher sold his last pair of rollerskis — his own — to a girl for $50. He told her it was the best deal ever.
Looking ahead to this season, Gallagher was excited to teach again. But he won’t teach beginners how to skate. One of the reason he thinks cross-country skiing struggles to gain popularity with newcomers is because of the industry’s dishonesty.
“We said cross-country skiing is as easy as walking. It’s not,” he said. “(To some people) I say, ‘Nah, I think you better be on snowshoes, you’re not ready to ski.’ … They want to exercise on snow. Not everybody can ski.”
In the end, he wants to make it fun for beginners and keep them coming back. “I enjoy teaching someone how to cast a fly,” he said. “I enjoy teaching someone how to pound a nail. I enjoy teaching someone cross-country skiing.”
And he loves being in Vermont. At his induction into the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2007, Gallagher borrowed a line from one of his favorite presidents, John F. Kennedy. “Ich bin ein Vermonter,” he said. I am a Vermonter.