If Olympian Ji Wallace had any doubts about going public with his HIV status they have vanished under the tide of goodwill and messages of support he has received since the announcement last week.
Wallace, who won a silver medal in trampoline at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was diagnosed just 12 months ago with HIV but now speaks like a man transformed by a purpose.
“It’s been out of control,” Wallace says of the response to his public declaration in the Star Observer last week.
“My boyfriend and myself sat down and read the messages and some of them brought us to tears; people saying they are so alone and scared, living in fear of friends and families finding out.
“There [are] people who are in small towns and they say I’m the first person they have told. Some of the stories are awful. It really is heartbreaking.”
Wallace said he has already decided to take an active role as a campaigner for HIV awareness, this is on top of the work he already does as an ambassador for the Federation of Gay Games.
“There’s still a lot of stigma for me to get out there and fight,” he said.
“These people deserve happiness and the fear of retribution and discrimination is holding them back.”
For Wallace, the hardest thing about revealing his own status was deciding to do it in the first place, but a conversation with openly gay and HIV-positive Olympic diver Greg Louganis made his mind up for him.
“I was thinking about doing it for some time, but obviously there’s a lot to consider,” he said.
“When you do find out it literally is like a bomb going off in your head, but luckily I had very good friends around me.
“When I came home [to Australia after being diagnosed] I made sure my parents knew and my close friends as well. I was in a new relationship and so I made sure he knew and his family knew.”
When it came to going public, it was a television interview by CNN’s Piers Morgan with Louganis during the London Olympics this month that decided things for Wallace.
“It was so nice to see Piers so interested in [Louganis’] life and HIV is such a small part of his life and Piers did not make a big deal about it,” he said.
“After the interview I was lying there in bed and couldn’t sleep and I decided to write and say thank you [to Morgan] for treating [Louganis] normally and like every other human being on the planet.”
“I spoke with Greg very briefly online about going public and he said ‘you know what, just go for it’.”
Surprisingly, despite Wallace’s own experiences – first revealing his sexuality after the Sydney Olympics and now his HIV status – he does not automatically encourage gay young athletes to come out, instead saying he believed it was a lot of extra pressure for a competitive athlete to deal with.
“The only example I can talk about is my own. My decision to come out after the games was mine and I was a competitor who just happened to be gay but that was not all there was to me – you’re not a gay person who happens to be an athlete,” he said.
“Everything goes into being a great competitor, my focus was not on being gay or an activist in the community.
“Those negative responses will be in your head and affect your ability to get asleep and focus on training and being your best; you have this one moment in your life to shine and the rest of your life to do and be what ever you want to be.”
Wallace said he has been encouraged by the response to his HIV status, vowing to fight the fear and stigma that still surrounds the disease.
“One of my main goals is doing something for Worlds Aids Day, I want to do something amazing out of respect for the millions of people who have passed, to show HIV/AIDS is still is here and it’s not ok to get [complacent],” he said.
“But also to say that it is a disease where you can live a very healthy, very normal and functioning life.
“You can understand why people are still feeling [prejudice] and that way, but at the same time it’s still just fear.”
Photo: Markham Lane / www.markhamimages.com