Ji Wallace: Reaching Higher Heights

Australian gymnast Ji Wallace came out as HIV-positive last summer, making him only the third Olympian to do so. And that turned him into the kind of activist the world really needs.

BY Daniel Reynolds

January 07 2013 8:02 AM ET

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.

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