HIV-Positive Australian Olympian Ji Wallace Joins Team to End AIDS
3/6/2013 11:51:00 AM
Since coming out last year as HIV-positive, silver medal-winning Olympian Ji Wallace has been a tireless advocate for HIV education and prevention. Recently Ji agreed to lend his voice and boundless energy to support APLA’s “Team to End AIDS,” which will be running the Los Angeles Marathon Sunday, March 17. This interview is an expanded version of the interview running at FrontiersLA.com.
Can you tell me about the events that led to you coming out about your HIV status?
When I first found out about my HIV-status, I wanted to scream at the world, “know your status,” because then people can make educated and informed decisions about circumstances they might find themselves in. I was overseas and wanted to tell my parents but didn’t want to do it by phone. So I had to wait until i made it back to Australia. Then I thought for a number of months about how I could best use my little voice to stop other people from being infected with HIV. It didn’t come to me until I saw an interview with Piers Morgan and Greg Louganis. I loved that interview, because Piers spoke to Greg as Greg—“What have you been up to? How does it feel back to be back at the Olympics? What’s new on the horizon for you? And how’s the HIV?” Piers made it it just a part of Greg. And that's what HIV is, just a small part of everybody.
I actually wrote to Piers and I said, “Thank you for the interview. You treated Greg as Greg, and you were interested in his story. And you made mention of his HIV but didn’t make it explosive.” And I included a gay Australian newspaper that had been very supportive of my exploits over the years. It all happened very organically. I really didn’t understand or have understanding of the potential impact that something I construed to be a small matter would have.
What kind of reaction did you get from your friends and your family?
They already knew. Everybody that I felt deserved to know I told directly, face to face. Back in the '80s in Australia there was an HIV awareness ad that was quite devastating. It involved the grim reaper in a bowling alley, bowling at families. It was this massive fear campaign that still has impact in Australia today. So I was afraid that my parents would instantly think that their son would be consumed by the grim reaper. I thought it was very important to tell them directly and give them the right information. If I had told them while I was overseas I wouldn’t have been able to hold their hands, and I wouldn’t have been able to look them in the eye and tell them it’s going to be OK. I told my mom and gave her all the information she needed. She just gave me a hug and told me, “As long as you are going to be OK, I’m OK with that.”
It was a bit more difficult to tell my dad, because he doesn’t believe that HIV exists, so that was a little more difficult. But he could tell i was struggling with this information, and he actually put his hand on my knee and said, “I still love you. You are still my son.” And that got the conversation going between us. Then I invited both of my parents to Sydney to meet with my doctor and ask him any questions they wanted to ask. I just let them lead the conversation, and my dad led with “I don’t believe HIV exists.” And my doctor said, “Well, Mr. Wallace, here is the the data. This is what we are dealing with.” And you could see it clicking over in his mind, maybe it is real, maybe it does exist. And that was great.
The first person I actually told, who I wasn’t afraid to tell over the phone, was my best mate. I actually texted him while I was still in the clinic—“I just returned a positive test.” The minute we could actually speak, we were on the phone and he said, “I’ve got to get to you.” He flew from London to the city I was in. He spent a couple of days with me and we laughed we cried, I got stuff off my chest. He could see that I was alright, and I could see that he was OK with it.
Those were three people I needed to tell, and their responses were overwhelming with love and support.
The final person i needed to tell was the man who is now my boyfriend. We met on the beach one beautiful, sunny day. Everything was going fantastic. We organized to meet that night, and when he arrived, I sat half in the front seat and half outside the car, not knowing how the information would be taken, and he said, “Don’t worry about that. I really like you. I want to get to know you, and we can deal with that. Get in the car.”
The four people I needed to tell have been absolutely amazing. And the fact that the four people I needed to tell had responded in such an amazing way made me feel ... not lucky, because I believe we make our own luck, and I’ve got these people in my life for a reason. And I’m not a religious person, so I hesitate to use this word, but I felt blessed that everyone took it so well. And I knew that was a unique circumstance. Because I knew my story isn’t reflected very often when people tell other people about their status. And I knew that with my sporting history, I’m in a unique situation. I have a small voice, but if I can help even one person, I’m happy to talk about it.
Your boyfriend Shaun is HIV-negative. Do you feel that being in a relationship with someone who is HIV-negative offers any special challenges?
No. Obviously, considerations need to be made, but outside of those specific considerations, it’s a full-on loving relationship. And obviously it’s special to us, but there are many special relationships out there. The uniqueness of our relationship is Shaun’s ability to say, “We can deal with that. I’m interested in you.” HIV doesn’t define who we are. And it shouldn’t. People outside and people inside the HIV-positive community need to understand that HIV doesn’t define you. Your personality, your ability to love, your ability to care, your ability to strive for more, those are the things that are important. HIV is such a small part of the chocolate cake that is your life.
How easy is it to access HIV-services in Australia?
It’s really easy. You just go to your doctor, and if you want to go on meds, your doctor will prescribe them, and the state insurance scheme will help you pay for them. Again, I understand, it is lovely for someone like myself, who has the ease of access. I’m in a unique situation where my meds only cost me $35 dollars every two months because of the public benefits scheme here, which is incredible. We have about 60 percent of people living with HIV on medication. And I hope to increase that exponentially to stop the spread of HIV. We actually have campaigns here that say “The end of HIV is near, we have to work together.”
Year before last we had a spike in HIV infections that made the infection rate top 1,000. And that's for the country. Just over 1,000 new infections for the country, and the government has gone crazy, saying, “This is unacceptable. We’ll give you more money to create campaigns. Let's stop this together.”
And again, I understand it’s very rare around the world to have such an active government to get on board.
Even in the U.S. you have to fight and fight and fight harder for recognition and accessibility of treatment and cost, and it breaks my heart when I read the statistics APLA has provided me. Some of the info I’ve read about the way HIV impacts just Los Angeles! I mean, there are 60,000 people living with HIV in L.A. alone. That is three times the number of people who have HIV in the whole country of Australia.
That's just L.A. And I want to get involved as much as possible, because like the government here, like the campaigners here, I, too, see an end to this. The day that the announcement comes—either through a cure or a vaccine—that the end of HIV is upon us, will affect 35 million people living with HIV around the world. And another 100 million people who are involved in the community. That is going to be huge, and will change people’s lives forever. And If I can lend my little voice to assist that, sign me up.
Why did you decide to Join The Team to End AIDS?
Because of my activity on social media, I have been privileged enough to be able to reach out very easily to people I applaud for their efforts in many different circumstances. Something that really caught my eye was The Stigma Project and the work that they are doing. I reached out and I said, “I love your work, it’s unique and edgy, it’s educational and for the community.” The conversation quickly turned to me asking, “How can I help?” And they asked me if I would be interested in coming to L.A. and doing the marathon and joining the Team to End AIDS. And I quite literally jumped at the chance to help, no pun intended.
APLA supports the community through an array of social services—food pantries, dental clinics, help with housing, in-home case management—and I am part of that community. It’s a no-brainer. Obviously, APLA has to fight and struggle for funding and their campaigns. And that is a major reason I want to come over and support them. This isn’t about me running a marathon. This is about me support support services that support my community. This is about helping APLA, which is literally saving lives.
Have you ever run a marathon before?
We’ve come full-circle. Because my first memory of life is watching the Moscow Olympics in 1980 when I was 3, and I’ve always loved the marathon. Obviously my size, shape and abilities don’t lend themselves well to running a marathon, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And it ties in brilliantly with my availability and what I’m doing at the moment. That I can tick off something on my bucket list and help the 60,000 people in Los Angeles who are living with HIV.
What kind of training are you doing to prepare?
My boyfriend Shaun and I are very competitive. If we did train the way we should train, we would be competitive and I would be trying to win the damn thing, so our training isn’t a typical marathon training. I’ve actually got a fused ankle from when I crashed in the circus and other sports injuries that make it difficult to train at an Olympic level, so I’m really taking it as a social event and a participatory event. So that's the way in my head if I don’t do a four-minute kilometer/ five-minute mile then I’m not going to beat myself up at the end of the day. [Laughs] It’s about participating, not about winning.
Is your boyfriend Shaun going to be running the marathon as well?
Yes, he is coming over and he’s going to run it with me. He used to run for New Zealand, but he’s a sprinter. He’s also very keen and eager to participate in a marathon, but funnily enough he snapped his Achilles tendon about six months ago. So we’ve been taking training very slowly. It’s been great therapy for him to get his Achilles back in action.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone who finds themselves newly HIV-positive?
If you do find yourself with a new diagnosis, educate yourself. Because when you know the facts, it’s not that scary and you can make really good, educated decisions about your future. Just because you returned a positive test does not mean your future does not have life and does not have excitement and does not have love in it. It just means you have one more thing to consider.
You can follow Ji on Twitter and support his efforts to bring an end to the HIV epidemic HERE.
And you can learn more about APLA and the Team to End AIDS HERE.