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 9:02 AM ET

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.”