'Go Gareth!' Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas is cheered by crowds hours after revealing he's been secretly living with HIV 'for years' and considered suicide - as he competes in an ironman competition because he feels 'fitter than ever'
- Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas has revealed he is living with HIV
- He is today taking part in Ironman Wales, in Tenby, which consists of a two-mile swim, 112-mile cycle followed by a marathon, where thousands will watch
- The 45 year-old said he has been living with the condition in secret for years
- 'I was in a dark place, feeling suicidal', the former Wales captain admitted
- Thomas discovered his diagnosis while going for a sexual health check up
- He will feature in a BBC documentary titled Gareth Thomas: HIV and Me
Rugby legend Gareth Thomas was met with huge cheers as he emerged from the water at Ironman Wales this morning - a day after telling the world he has been living with HIV 'for years'.
The former Wales and British Lions star, who came out as gay in 2009, was greeted with cries of 'Come on Alfie' and 'Go Gareth' after completing a gruelling two-mile swim in Tenby, West Wales.
After finishing the swim section in just under an hour and a half, the 45-year-old, known affectionately as Alfie, clambered onto his bike for a 112-mile cycle.
He waved at the crowds but remained serious and determined, staying focused on the race, which will finish with a marathon later today.
Thomas is taking part in the competition just a day after revealing he has HIV, becoming the first major UK sports star to come out as HIV-positive.
Last night he said he kept his status a secret for fear of being 'treated like a leper', but was forced to tell close friends and family when he was threatened by blackmailers.
The sports star also revealed he is married and his husband Stephen, 56, does not have HIV, following his divorce from childhood sweetheart Jemma in 2009.
Ahead of the race this morning he told the Sunday Mirror he is 'fitter than when he played rugby' and 'he didn't have HIV then'.
Thomas (pictured centre) is today taking part in the Wales Ironman competition in Tenby. He is pictured emerging from the water this morning after completing the gruelling 2.3-mile swim
The 45-year-old (pictured centre this morning) says he is 'fitter than when he was playing rugby', which was before his HIV diagnosis
The 45-year-old is pictured on his bike this morning after completing a 2.3-mile swim
The rugby legend last night revealed he has been living with HIV 'for years'. He is pictured in a video he posted to Twitter last night about his condition
Thomas played 100 times for Wales during his illustrious career before he retired from the game in 2011
His husband Stephen and Stephen's daughter Anna, 23, who both live with the sportsman in Bridgend, are expected to join thousands on the sidelines of the marathon section of Ironman later today.
Thomas, who has appeared on Celebrity Big Brother and Dancing On Ice, is the first major British sports star to admit to being HIV-positive.
The rugby legend yesterday said he is revealing his diagnosis because he wanted to 'make a difference' by helping end the stigma surrounding the virus.
Thomas is pictured today on his bike as part of the Wales Ironman challenge in Tenby
Speaking to the Mirror, he also told how he was threatened with blackmail, forcing him to tell his family of his HIV status before they heard it from someone else.
He said: '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. 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.'
Speaking at the Ironman Wales race today, spectator Adam Davies, 45, of Swansea, said: 'He was in sports mode - he looked pretty determined and engrossed in the race.
'I only found out about his illness when I arrived here at six this morning. What a super hero this bloke is.
'It looks to me like he's sending a message out to the world about living with HIV.'
Thomas had to learn how to do the front crawl to take part in the Ironman - the event starts with a 2.3-mile swim.
The former wales and British Lions fullback entered the sea at Tenby's north Beach at 7am along with 2,300 other competitors.
He completed the swim section in an estimated 1 hour 29 minutes and looked fresh and strong at the transition to the cycle element of the race which ends with a full marathon.
Gareth married his childhood sweetheart Jemma in 2002 but came out as gay in 2009
Thomas, wearing number 50, was given another huge cheer when his name was announced over the PA system at the event which will take 17 hours for some competitors to complete.
WHAT IS HIV?
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus which attacksthe immune system—the body's defence against diseases.
HIV stays in the body for life, but treatment can keep the virus under control and the immune system healthy. Without medication people with HIV can develop AIDS.
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is the most advanced stage of an HIV infection, when the immune system can no longer fight infections.
Someone with AIDS has both HIV and at least one of a specific list of 'AIDS-defining' diseases, which include tuberculosis, pneumonia and some types of cancer.
AIDS is life threatening, but if HIV is caught early and is treated, it will not lead to AIDS. If HIV is caught late, it can lead to more complications and could ultimately lead to AIDS. That is why it is so important to get tested early if you have been at risk of HIV, as it will mean that you can access treatment that will prevent you ever getting AIDS.
Source: The National Aids Trust
Spectator Emma Barazia, 49, said: 'Gareth was a great rugby player but he's going to be a bigger hero to so many people now.
'He must be so tough mentally and physically to take part today.'
HIV (human immuno-deficency virus) attacks the body's immune system. Those diagnosed with the virus once had a bleak prospect.
However, nowadays it can be fully controlled by drugs which stop it developing into AIDS.
The rugby star compared his condition to 'living with diabetes or high blood pressure' and appears to be as fit as ever.
Thomas, who retired from rugby in 2011, went public with his HIV status on the eve of the opening of the Rugby World Cup, which starts on Friday. He will appear on ITV as a pundit.
He said he would 'never forget' the moment he found out his diagnosis, which came after a 'routine sexual health test' in Cardiff.
When told in a 'matter of fact way' that he was HIV-positive, Thomas said he broke down. 'I immediately thought I was going to die,' he said.
'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?'
Gareth (left) posted this picture of himself on his 45th birthday in July with the caption: 'Today I'm 45 and the happiest I have ever been in my life. I surround myself with people I love and would die for'
Thomas is pictured in a wet suit by the sea earlier this month ahead of an Ironman competition he is due to take part in in Tenby, south west Wales, today
Thomas did not say when he was diagnosed, but revealed that he had to tell a number of former sexual partners as a matter of 'duty' so they could get themselves tested too.
He split with his wife Jemma in 2009 upon revealing his true sexuality, seven years after they married.
Thomas and his husband, who married in front of close friends, including close friend 'H' from the bands Steps, met while working with trouble school children.
The rugby player said: 'Stephen is from the Valley and isn't used to media attention or the idea of giving interviews, but he loves me and supports me 100 per cent in what I'm doing.'
He also told that learning of his diagnosis has not been the last trauma he has had to undergo.
He revealed that afterwards he was 'threatened by people who said they would give away my secret', who he feared would 'use it as a weapon' against him and his family.
He had wanted to keep the information from his parents, Yvonne, 70, and Barry 69, fearing it would 'hurt' them. After the blackmail threat he decided he had no option but to tell them. In the event he discovered he 'underestimated' them.
'My parents and loved ones are fine with it,' he said.
Thomas said there was so much 'inaccurate information' about HIV that he wanted to counter, stressing, for instance, that there was 'no possibility' of him passing it on to others because of the drugs he was taking.
He said: 'I always say now, 'I'm living with HIV. I know I have HIV, but HIV doesn't have me. It doesn't control me.'
The ex-rugby player says he considered committing suicide after learning of his diagnosis
David Cameron meets with Gareth Thomas at Downing Street in 2011 following his retirement
Commenting on Thomas going public, a close friend who also played for Wales, said: 'Everyone is shocked and worried for Gareth - but the important thing is he's fit and well.
'He is a remarkable individual who is mentally equipped to deal with this illness.
'Everyone supported him when he came out as gay and that support will be even stronger now.'
The former rugby player posted also posted this picture of himself giving a big 'thumbs up' on his 45th birthday in July, with the caption: 'I try to do the right thing but more importantly I know I will sometimes fail, cry, and be sad, and strangely it's knowing that, that makes me happy.'
He added: 'Gareth is inspirational, he's changed the lives of so many people.
'I fully expect him to become a leading light for HIV and Aids charities, that's the sort of bloke he is.'
Thomas came out at the end of his rugby career and said at the time: 'I don't want to be known as a gay rugby player, I am a rugby player first and foremost I'm a man.'
Following his diagnosis revelation, there has been a huge outpouring of support.
HIV and sexual health charity Terrance Higgins Trust said in a statement: 'Gareth Thomas has spoken publicly about living with HIV for the very first time ahead of taking on the Ironman Wales challenge.
'He wants everyone to know that HIV shouldn't stop you doing anything you want to. We're very proud to call him a friend.'
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also tweeted his support, saying the rugby legend has 'shown enormous strength' in sharing his HIV status.
He described him as a 'role model challenging stigma and prejudice', 'offering hope and resolve to others'.
The Welsh rugby team, who are in Japan for the Rugby World Cup, has also shown their support.
Head coach Warren Gatland said last night: 'There hasn't been a lot of conversation about it because it's very fresh news to us at this stage.
'It's always sad when an ex-professional sportsman picks up an illness of any kind. As the players become aware of the news, I'm sure they'll talk about it.'
Thomas took part in Dancing On Ice in 2013. He is pictured right with skating partner Robin Johnstone
After retiring from the game Thomas launched a successful media career while volunteering for charities and is an active supporter of Childline.
He said he hoped his public acknowledgement of his sexuality would help other young gay sportsmen seek support from charities such as Childline.
Thomas appeared as a contestant on TV's Celebrity Big Brother where he reached the final three.
He also appeared on Dancing on Ice as a pundit and has been given his own shows on BBC Wales including Run for Your Life when he trained a group of overweight and unfit women from the Welsh Valleys to get fit for the Cardiff Half Marathon.
Last November Thomas was the victim of an homophobic attack while out with friends in Cardiff City Centre.
He posted a video on his Twitter Page showing his bruised and cut face from the Saturday night 'hate crime' in the Welsh capital.
A 16-year-old boy was later dealt with by restorative justice and met with Thomas to apologise for his actions.
In 2017 he made a TV documentary called Gareth Thomas v Homophobia challenging gay taunts used by soccer fans at Premiership matches.
He will now feature in a new documentary entitled: Gareth Thomas: HIV and ME, which will air on BBC One on Wednesday September 18 at 9pm.
Thomas has devoted the last few months getting fit for Ironman Wales, which is taking place in the West Wales seaside resort of Tenby today.
He is one of more than 2,000 amateur competitors who lined up at 7am for the swimming leg of the gruelling race.
WHO IS GARETH THOMAS?
Gareth Thomas is a former Welsh rugby player. He has represented Wales in both Rugby Union and Rugby League and was the most capped player in the country until he was overtaken in 2011.
He came out as gay in 2009 following a split from his wife and childhood sweetheart Jemma in 2007, becoming the first openly-gay rugby player in Britain.
Thomas, who is affectionately known as 'Alfie' due to his 'resemblance to the alien character in the TV sitcom 'Alf', battled with his sexuality for years, telling of how he was driven to the brink of suicide on multiple occasions.
He told the Daily Mail in December 2009: 'I was like a ticking bomb. I thought I could suppress it, keep it locked away in some dark corner of myself, but I couldn't.
'It was who I was, and I just couldn't ignore it any more. I'd been through every emotion under the sun trying to deal with this.
'You wake up one morning thinking: 'I can handle it. Everything is fine,' and the next morning you don't want anyone to see your face, because you think that if people look at you, they will know.'
Wales rugby legend Gareth Thomas is pictured in October 2010
He went on: 'Sometimes I felt so alone and depressed. I've stood on so many cliff edges.
'I used to go to the cliffs overlooking the beach near our cottage in St Brides Major and just think about jumping off and ending it all.'
The year after he came out he was voted the most influential gay person in the UK and has since worked with multiple LGBT charities among others.
Thomas is the youngest of three sons. His older brothers are Richard and Steven. His father Barry, 69, is a retired postal worker, and his mother Yvonne, 70, a former hospital secretary.
He began his sporting career with his native Bridgend in 1994, staying there for three years. He made his debut for Wales the following year, representing his country until 2007.
With 100 appearances he was the most capped Welsh Rugby Union player ever until 2011 when the accolade was taken by Stephen Jones.
He played for Wales at the 2007 Rugby World Cup and played in four tournaments altogether
The fullback was the second highest try scorer for Wales, behind Shane Williams and captained for his country, and various club squads.
At club level Thomas played for Bridgend, Cardiff RFC, Celtic Warriors, Cardiff Blues and French side Toulouse.
During his time in France he was found guilty of assault in 2005. Two years later he was banned from the game for four week on misconduct charges.
While he was still playing in France he suffered a major health scare after a neck injury. He was later rushed to hospital and was suspected to have had a stroke, with fears the impact on his health may have led to his retirement.
After marrying childhood sweetheart Jemma in 2002, the couple struggled with relationship problems.
Thomas said he 'knew he was gay' at the age of around 16 or 17, but failed to accept it until years later.
He admitted cheating on her multiple times, insisting he always practised safe sex when sleeping with men.
Thomas will be part of ITV's broadcast team for the upcoming World Cup in Japan this month
The couple were married for five years, during which time Jemma suffered three miscarriages. They split in 2007 with the divorce finalised in 2009.
Thomas carried on playing rugby until 2011 when he suffered a broken arm. After missing two months, he announced he would be retiring from the sport in October that year.
Since he came out in 2009, Thomas has worked with numerous charities, including ChildLine, the Terrance Higgins Trust and Stonewall.
He was an ITV rugby pundit during the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.
In January 2012 he went into the Celebrity Big Brother House, finishing in the final three.
A year later he appeared on Dancing On Ice, when he was partnered with professional skater Robin Johnstone.
Thomas is pictured taking part in Dancing On Ice in January 2013 alongside his skating partner Robin Johnstone
This was around the time a film was due to be made about Thomas's life. Actor Tom Hardy was due to play Thomas, but the film later fell through.
His autobiography Proud was released in 2015, which gave distressing details about his battle with his sexuality.
In November 2018 he was assaulted in Cardiff city centre in a homophobic attack. He took to social media to share his ordeal and requested South Wales police deal with the 16-year-old suspect by way of restorative justice.
In September 2019 he became the first major British sports star to come out as HIV-positive.
He said he has been living with the virus 'for years' and also revealed he is now re-married to a man named Stephen, 56.
His husband does not have HIV and the couple live in Bridgend, South Wales, with Stephen's 23-year-old daughter Anna.