After 12 hours and 18 minutes of swimming, cycling, and a 140-mile run in one of the world’s most gruelling Ironmanraces on Sunday, Gareth Thomas thumped his chest, roared to hundreds of cheering spectators, and embraced his husband at the finish line.
It was a whirlwind climax to a tumultuous weekend for one of the most capped players in Welsh rugby history. The night before the triathlon, Thomas posted an emotional video to social media that has since been viewed millions of times.
“I’m living with HIV,” Thomas says in the video. “Now you have that information, that makes me extremely vulnerable. But it does not make me weak.”
Thomas further said that he had been “forced” to share his diagnosis with the world by tabloid journalists who “threatened to tell” everyone before he could. He then pledged to dedicate himself to fighting stigma and educating others about the realities of the virus.
That started with tackling the Ironman challenge in Tenby, Pembrokeshire — which he described as being one of the hardest in the world. What’s more, in order to complete the triathlon, he had to learn how to swim for the first ever time.
It’s been just under a decade since Thomas became the first rugby union player to publicly come out as gay. He told the BBC that announcing he’s HIV-positive came with a similar sense of dread: facing "the fear, the hiding, the secrecy.”
But now, he says, he feels stronger than ever before.
"I needed to take control of my life," Thomas, 45, said in a BBC Wales documentary set to be released on Wednesday. "When you have a secret that other people know about it makes you really vulnerable towards them. And I just I felt like I had no control over my own life."
Since he shared his diagnosis, Thomas has been overwhelmed with public support — including from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
“In sharing your story of being HIV+, you are saving lives and shattering stigma by showing you can be strong and resilient while living with HIV,” Prince Harry wrote on Instagram.
“We should all be appalled by the way you were forced to speak your truth, it is yours and yours alone to share on your terms and I and millions stand with you,” he added.
“Gareth, you are an absolute legend! In sharing your story of being HIV+, you are saving lives and shattering stigma, by showing you can be strong and resilient while living with HIV. We should all be appalled by the way you were forced to speak your truth, it is yours and yours alone to share on your terms and I and millions stand with you.” - H • A lot of you will know who Gareth Thomas is, but many of you may not. This retired welsh rugby player, father, husband, role model - today revealed he is HIV positive. In his statement he shares: Hello, I’m Gareth Thomas 🏉🏴 and I want to share my secret with you. Why? Because it’s mine to tell you. Not the evils that make my life hell, threatening to tell you before I do. And because I believe in you, and I trust you. I am living with HIV. Now you have that information, that makes me extremely vulnerable, but it does not make me weak. Now even though I’ve been forced to tell you this, I choose to fight, to educate and break the stigma around this subject. And that begins today, when I take on the toughest Iron Man in the world in Tenby 🏴 and I push myself physically to the limits. I’m asking you to help me to show that everyone lives in fear of people’s reactions and opinions, but that doesn’t mean we have to hide. But to do this, I really really need your support. @gareththomasofficial #YourRaceYourVictory Photo©️Rowan Griffiths/Sunday Mirror
This takes exceptional courage 🏴 https://t.co/5Ka3R0to9H— Huw Edwards (@huwbbc) September 14, 2019
I have asthma which in 2019 requires about the same level of daily medication management as HIV. Asthma kills people and HIV, in the UK, doesn’t. The story shouldn’t be that Gareth Thomas is HIV positive but that the media is still hounding gay men over this— shon faye. (@shonfaye) September 15, 2019
HIV — or Human Immunodeficiency Virus — weakens the immune system, and can lead to AIDS, a late stage of the disease where the immune system is so severely damaged that you’re vulnerable to other illnesses or infections, according to the NHS.
However, if you’re on the right treatment, you cannot pass HIV on.
The NHS highlights that it’s also impossible to catch the virus through sweat, urine, or saliva. But it can be transmitted through blood or semen — which is why the most common way of getting HIV in Britain is through sex without a condom.
There are approximately 37 million people around the world who are living with HIV. However, many still go untreated. In Britain, there are 94,100 people who have the virus. Last year, 4,484 people were diagnosed in the UK — a decrease of 28% since 2015.
Although there is not yet a human cure, there have recently been successful tests on mice with gene-editing technology, described by scientists as the “cusp of a scientific revolution.”
"I hope that by speaking publicly about this, Gareth will transform attitudes towards HIV that are all too often stuck in the 1980s,” said Ian Green, a friend of Thomas and chief executive at the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity.
"We've made huge medical advances in the fight against HIV that means that people living with HIV like Gareth now live long healthy lives,” Green said.
"We can also say without doubt that those on effective HIV treatment can't pass on the virus,” Green added. “This is exactly the kind of information Gareth wants to get out there to challenge the stigma that still surrounds this virus."