RUGBY hero Gareth Thomas was cheered on by crowds at a gruelling Ironman contest today just hours after bravely revealing his battle with HIV.
The Celebrity Big Brother star, 45, stunned the sporting world yesterday by dramatically declaring he is living with the incurable virus.
But he came back today looking stronger than ever as he competed in the Ironman contest to cheers of “come on Alfie” and “Go Gareth”.
He completed a two-mile swim in Tenby, West Wales, in just under 90 minutes before clambering on to his bike for a 112 mile cycle.
The sporting legend waved at the crowds as he prepared for a marathon later.
And the legend has been met with support since he revealed his diagnosis – with Prince William tweeting out a message to Gareth.
In a message from the Kensington Palace Twitter, the future king said: “Courageous as ever – legend on the pitch and legend off it. You have our support Gareth. W”
The cause will be close to William’s heart as his mum Princess Diana was known for her work with HIV patients.
In 1987, Princess Diana shocked the world as she shook hands with an AIDS patient at Middlesex Hospital in London at the opening of the UK’s first treatment unit.
The gesture, which challenged the belief that HIV or AIDS could be transmitted by touch, showed Diana’s compassion for other people and sparked the beginning of her work with people affected by the disease.
‘LIVING WITH SECRET FOR YEARS’
Thomas made the announcement yesterday -saying sick blackmailers had started using his diagnosis as a “weapon”.
And Thomas – who won 100 caps for Wales and ‘came out’ as gay in December 2009 while he was still playing – said he wants to reduce the stigma of living with HIV.
He told The Sunday Mirror: “I’ve been living with this secret for years. I’ve felt shame and keeping such a big secret has taken its toll.
“I had a fear people would judge me and treat me like a leper because of a lack of knowledge. I was in a dark place, feeling suicidal. I thought about driving off a cliff.
I was in a dark place, feeling suicidal. I thought about driving off a cliff
“To me, wanting to die was just a natural thought and felt like the easier way out, but you have to confront things.
“And having a strong support system and the personal strength and experience of overcoming those emotions got me through it.
“Many people live in fear and shame of having HIV, but I refuse to be one of them now. We need to break the stigma once and for all.
“I’m speaking out because I want to help others and make a difference.”
SICK THREATS Gareth Thomas was targeted by blackmailers who wanted to expose HIV diagnosis
Gareth Thomas was forced to reveal his HIV diagnosis after sick blackmailers threatened to expose his secret.
The sports legend told how he “went through hell” as he tried to keep his health battle hidden from his friends and family.
But he decided to break the news to his parents and two older brothers after blackmailers started using his diagnosis as a “weapon”.
“I’ve been threatened by people who said they would give away my secret. It’s sick and I’ve been through hell,” Gareth, 45, told the Sunday Mirror.
“I was being blackmailed and in my mind I thought you only get blackmailed for something really bad, which compounded the feeling of shame.
“When someone else knows a secret as big as that they can determine your happiness or sadness every morning and use it as a weapon against you and your family.”
He found out that he was HIV positive after he went for a routine sexual health test at a clinic in Cardiff.
Gareth, who was married to teen sweetheart Jemma for six years before coming out, said: “I sat down on a chair next to a doctor’s bench. She told me in a quite matter of fact way I had tested HIV positive.
“When she said those words I broke down. I was in such a state. I immediately thought I was going to die. I felt like an express train was hitting me at 300mph. I wasn’t expecting it at all.
“Then I was thinking ‘how long have I got left?’ I was distraught.”
STAR SOBBED IN DOC’S ARMS
6ft 3in, 16 stone, Gareth went straight to hospital after sobbing on the shoulder of the doctor who gave him the news.
He said: “She treated me with such empathy and understanding and after about 20 minutes I got myself together.”
As he drove to Cardiff Royal Infirmary, he called a friend in tears: “I told him, ‘I’ve got HIV – I’m going to die’.
“He was trying to comfort and reassure me and telling me to go and speak to the doctors, but I’d already made my mind up that my life was over.”
What are the symptoms of HIV?
MOST infected people experience a short illness, similar to flu, two to six weeks after coming into contact with HIV.
These symptoms, which 80 per cent of infected people experience, are a sign that their body is trying to fight HIV. They include:
- Sore throat
- Body rash
- Joint and/or muscle pain
- Swollen glands
After this illness, which normally lasts one to two weeks, HIV sufferers will have no symptoms for up to 10 years – during which time they will look and feel well.
However, the virus will continue to cause progressive damage to a person’s immune system.
Only once the immune system is already severely damaged will the person show new symptoms. These include:
- Weight loss
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Night sweats
- Skin problems
- Recurrent infections
- Serious, life-threatening illnesses
But Gareth’s condition is now under control to the point it is considered ‘undetectable’ and cannot be passed on. He also receives regular counselling and check-ups.
He said: “I think if you went out on the street right now and told 10 people you have HIV, 50 per cent of them would be scared you’re going to give it to them.
“I don’t blame people for thinking it, because I did too, but we need to change that by talking about it and educating people.”
Last night, a close friend of the ex-player, who is fighting HIV with antiretroviral drugs, said: “Everyone is shocked and worried for Gareth – but the important thing is he’s fit and well.
“He’s a remarkable individual who is mentally equipped to deal with this.
“Gareth is a hero in Wales where he is respected for what he achieved on the rugby field and off it and we will support him through this.
“He’s had this condition for quite a while so he’s been living with a terrible secret.
You are not alone
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost – to suicide.
It doesn’t discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It’s the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes. And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet, it’s rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun has launched the You’re Not Alone campaign. To remind anyone facing a tough time, grappling with mental illness or feeling like there’s nowhere left to turn, that there is hope.
To mark World Suicide Prevention Day, over the course of this week, we will tell you the stories of brave survivors, relatives left behind, heroic Good Samaritans – and share tips from mental health experts.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let’s all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others. You’re Not Alone.
For a list of support services available, please see the Where To Get Help box below.
The rugby-playing pal added: “He’s been a great ambassador for Wales and the gay community since coming out.
“People will rally around him in the same way they did when he talked about his sexuality 10 years ago.
“By doing the Ironman contest he is showing everyone that he’s still an incredible athlete.
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“I hope people lining the route cheer extra loudly when he passes them on the road.”
Last November Thomas was beaten up in Cardiff by a 16-year-old boy in a sickening homophobic attack.
A South Wales Police spokesman said: “We can confirm a local 16-year-old boy was dealt with by way of restorative justice following the incident at around 9pm.
“Restorative justice was at the request of Mr Thomas and accepted by the teenager who admitted assault and was apologetic for his actions.”
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or visit Mind’s website.