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

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.