A couple of weeks ago, a Vermont legend passed away at his home.
Mike Gallagher, who lived in Pittsfield, Vt., was one of the greatest Nordic ski racers and coaches ever in the United States. He was a nine-time national champion, three-time Olympian, and three-time Olympic coach. He coached another great Vermont Nordic ski racer, Bill Koch, to an overall world cup title. He coached the Rutland Regional High School ski team for more than 10 years, making that team into a force to be reckoned with, and developing many great racers, coaches, and avid life-long skiers.
He also loved to bike and run, and won the Mount Washington uphill running race and the U.S. national bike timetrial. He was innovative in how he trained and how he coached. One example of this is that in his quest to win the U.S. national bike timetrial, he practiced by riding his bike on a stationary trainer in a sauna, to get his body to adapt to the temperature he predicted for the place and day of the race.
He was also my friend. When I was 16 years old and still mending from a horrible knee injury, my knee doctor told me of a ski camp he was coaching in the Rutland area. Mike's coaching was friendly and energizing. He was very kind about the fact that I broke his strength training equipment, and started exclaiming about how strong I was, in a situation where a different person might have been upset with me.
When we biked as part of the camp, he and I found ourselves racing each other up Mountain Top Road, a very long continuous uphill. We didn't plan it or discuss it. It just sort of happened, because we were both what he called "half wheelers" -- we both like to be a half-wheel ahead of the other person. When two people who are like that, bike together, the result is to go faster and faster. We went faster and faster until we were both gulping as much air as we could.
We both biked our fastest, all the way to the top, where he got ahead of me by half a wheel length and declared himself victorious. We were both grinning, loving a good chase. Mike liked to talk about enjoying the chase, and about finding energy and recovery in being in nature and doing what you love. He deeply believed in playing fair, and often spoke of that in the context of hunting, which was one of his favorite things to do. He always hunted fair, gave the animals their fair chance.
We remained friends ever since. When I was having a very hard time in my life as a young adult, he told me I was welcome to come to his house any time, and stay. So I always had a backup plan, a respite place, where I could get away from it all and have a good friend to talk to and some nice warm home-cooked chili (his favorite food). We talked on the phone often, and occasionally visited and skied together. Just last winter, he came to one of my races, and we got to talk quite a bit. I was feeling chronically tired, and he recommended that I go out in the wilderness and ski all I want and have fun, and don't keep track of how much I am skiing or how fast, and leave the heart rate monitor at home. So I did -- I ski toured in the Green Mountain National Forest almost every day, until I felt good again, which didn't take long. His approach to "recovery" is one that few athletes or coaches really understand today. Now, the human body is thought about as though it's a machine. Mike was fully aware of the role of fun, play, emotions, enthusiasm, desire. To him, athletes were human beings. He was a deeply sensitive and compassionate person, something we don't stereotypically think of in athletes and coaches.
Mike Gallagher was a great person, on top of being a great athlete and a great coach.