Ji Wallace: Reaching Higher Heights
A gold Olympic medal is 93% silver.
Ji Wallace, who won second place in trampoline in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, points out that a thin exterior plating is the only physical difference between the gold and silver medals.
“So really, everybody comes second, don’t they?” the Australian Olympian jokes. “It’s just a pretty paint job.”
In conversation, Wallace laughs often. He pokes fun at his shortcomings, while remaining modest about his remarkable athletic achievements. In addition to his Olympic silver medal, Wallace won gold at the 1996 Trampoline World Championships and set a world record for the double mini trampoline in 1998.
Since coming out as a gay man in 2005, Wallace has been an activist, role model, and—after a photograph of him in a Speedo went viral—a sex symbol. He has served as Australia’s first Gay Games ambassador and was a guest of honor at the London Pride House during the 2012 Summer Olympics. It was there that he watched a television broadcast with Greg Louganis, a former Olympic diver who is HIV-positive.
“I happened to catch a Piers Morgan interview with Greg Louganis on CNN,” Wallace says. “And when I was writing a thank-you letter to Piers Morgan—for just interviewing Greg as a person, not Greg the HIV diver—these words were ringing in my head: ‘There is value in being seen and heard.’”
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper used words similar to these last summer in his coming-out letter to blogger Andrew Sullivan. The message about the power of visibility hit home with Wallace. Just months before the London Olympics, he tested positive for HIV, leaving him feeling alone, angry, and frustrated. Nonetheless, he was motivated to effect change.
“From that very first day, I wanted to scream at the world, ‘Know your status! Get yourself tested and know your status!’ Because a lot of people wouldn’t be in the situation that I was in if everybody knew their status. So right from the get-go, I wanted to do something about it.”
He wrote a letter to Morgan that revealed his HIV. He also sent a copy to the Sydney Star Observer. “I felt inspired to write,” he penned. “I too am an Olympic medal winner living with HIV.”
The newspaper staff replied within 20 minutes. They wanted to run the story. And in August the news about Wallace was out, during the London games.
Wallace at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney
Wallace draws his resilience from the sport that launched him to fame: trampolining, which he has practiced since his youth. In Australia a trampoline is a common backyard apparatus for families. Wallace’s household was no exception. (Due to a string of highly publicized injuries to children, the device is less common in the United States.)
“I was a bit of a raucous kid that had a lot of energy and needed a bit of controlling,” Wallace says. “My parents bought me a trampoline hoping that would entertain me for a little while, but it only encouraged me to do bigger and crazier things.”
In search of larger trampolines and higher heights, Wallace and some neighborhood friends joined the PCYC, a local gym and youth center. What began as a hobby and social activity quickly escalated into a career sport, with Wallace as its rising star.
“We went to local competitions, and the coach saw us from there,” he explains, on being discovered for a national team. “She invited me over to her club, which was about 25 miles away. And my parents took me over there for about 10 years, about four times a week, until the magic day happened [and] trampoline got included in the Olympics.”
The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games marked the first time trampoline was included as an Olympic sport. That’s where Wallace won his silver medal.
But the fight for inclusion is still a pressing issue at the Olympic games. Each time the games are held, only a handful of athletes are open about being gay or bisexual. Transgender athletes are practically forbidden. With more than 10,000 competitors at the London Olympics, only about two dozen were openly gay or bisexual.
The pool of athletes who are forthcoming about being HIV-positive is infinitely smaller. Apart from Wallace, only Greg Louganis has stepped forward as a champion for the cause.
“I only have a tiny, small voice,” Wallace says. “And if it can reach some people that don’t see the light or feel they have nowhere to turn in a vulnerable situation like returning an HIV-positive test, then I feel like I’ve ‘gayed it forward.’ I’ve given back to people who have supported me for such a long time.”
After hearing of Wallace’s story, Louganis reached out to his fellow Olympian, offering his blessing and support. Inspired by his hero, Wallace plans to run with the Team to End AIDS (T2), a marathon training team that raises funds for AIDS Project Los Angeles, in the 2013 L.A. Marathon in March. But even for an Olympic champion, the prospect of a 26.2-mile run can be daunting.
“I’m actually kind of freaking out,” Wallace admits. “It’s going to take eight or nine hours. My trampoline event at the Olympics went for 30 seconds. It really is the flip side of what I’ve ever done before.”
But Wallace is no stranger to arduous training. In 2008 he broke his right ankle during his brief career as a performer in Cirque du Soleil’s Zaia show in Macau, China. He spent nearly two years learning to walk again and has undergone four surgeries to repair the damage. After rehabilitation, he accepted a coaching position at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal.
Training and teaching others turned out to be ideal preparation for Wallace’s next pursuit. Since learning of his positive status, Wallace has jumped headlong into activism. Before the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, he plans to establish the Silver Lining Foundation, which will work internationally to provide education about HIV and how to prevent it. It will also promote physical and emotional well-being for those who are positive. To this end, Wallace will lead HIV-positive hikers on a seven-day trek on the Kodoka Track in Papua New Guinea. He hopes this journey will inspire others while also raising awareness of the AIDS crisis in that nation.
In addition, Wallace plans to create a marathon cycle event, partner with other campaigns to address stigma and discrimination among athletes, and produce a documentary about his journey. It is a lot for one man to handle—but Wallace can rely on the support of his parents and his boyfriend, Shaun, as he navigates the road ahead.
“We caught on like a house on fire,” says Wallace, who was open about his status with Shaun from the first day they met at the beach. “[Shaun] shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘That’s not a problem for me. I like you. Do you want to have dinner?’ We are still together and living an amazing life. I really am proof that honesty with yourself and others around you makes for open dialogue and great outcomes.”
“We’re really looking forward to making a change in people’s lives,” he adds.
Through activism and his foundation, the Olympian will show the world that there is hope in every hardship. “Because every cloud does have a silver lining. Every life moment, you can turn a chorus of tragedy into one of comedy. Look for the silver lining. It just so happens that silver hangs around my neck.”
At a recent photo shoot for a sponsoring trampoline company, Wallace’s silver medal snapped off the cloth lanyard. He will send his prize back to the mint for repairs and polishing.
“That poor medal’s gone through trauma in its life. It’s been lost for five years. It’s damaged. It’s fallen. It’s actually broken. It’s in two pieces. It’s been through some tough times, and so have I. But trust me,” Wallace assures us, laughing, “it will come back looking better than ever.