If you’re living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), it’s important to remember that an HIV diagnosis doesn’t have to keep you from doing what you love and living an active life. While HIV may affect your physical health, you can still be an athlete in whatever way feels right to you.
Sports legends Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Arthur Ashe are among the famous athletes whose HIV-positive disclosures sparked new conversations about living with the condition. Check out stories of seven other incredible athletes — both professional and amateur — who show that being HIV-positive hasn’t held them back. In fact, it inspires them to keep going, stay active, and spread awareness.
Greg Louganis, 62, is a gold medal-winning American Olympic diver who is often considered the greatest diver in history. His diving career highlights include winning gold medals in both the springboard and platform dives at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, making him the first diver to win two golds in back-to-back Olympic Games. In 1993, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
In 1988, Louganis found out he was HIV-positive. In 1994, he publicly announced that he was gay, and in 1995 he publicly disclosed his HIV status. That same year, his autobiography “Breaking the Surface” was published. In addition to being a recognized diver, Louganis is an LGBTQ activist and motivational speaker.
Louganis has noted that he sees working out and being physically active every day as just as important as taking his medications. “I try to live by example — being gay, being HIV-positive — you know, life goes on,” he told ESPN in 2016. “HIV taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I ever believed I was. Also, not to take anything for granted. I didn’t think I would see 30, and here I am at 56.”
Raised in Los Angeles, marathon runner Ric Muñoz didn’t start running until his 20s. Despite his late start, he quickly gained positive feedback about his stride from more experienced runners, which spurred him to keep at it.
Now 64 years old, Muñoz ran his first marathon in 1983, followed by another in 1984, and then three more in 1986. Around the time of those early marathon finishes, he first learned about HIV and AIDS. Friends and acquaintances were getting it, some dying, at a shocking rate. Reflecting on that period in 2018 in an interview with WBUR, Muñoz remembered thinking to himself, “I guess I’m just going to wait for my time to come.”
Muñoz got tested for HIV when he was 28 years old. When he found out he was HIV-positive, he didn’t see it as the end. He told himself, “I’m just going to do what makes me happy for as long as I can, as best as I can.”
The marathon became Muñoz’s strongest race. He could have slowed down and taken it easy, but running meant too much to him. In 1990, he ran nine marathons, one of which qualified him for the Boston Marathon. In 1994, Nike asked Muñoz if the brand could feature him, a marathon runner with HIV, in its ads. After being advised by some to not do it for fear of what publicly disclosing his HIV status would do, Muñoz decided to go for it.
Nike’s ad with Muñoz helped show that people with HIV can live full lives and even active ones. It also helped show those in the general population that people with HIV are more than their virus. Today, Muñoz continues to run as part of his healthy lifestyle.
Marvelyn Brown was 19 when she found out she had HIV. In a 2008 interview with NPR, she recalled having a “blank feeling” because she didn’t think it would happen to her, a high school basketball star from Nashville. She was shocked to learn that she’d contracted the virus from her boyfriend.
Brown, 38, became an outspoken advocate for HIV awareness, emphasizing that it’s a preventable disease. She wrote a memoir, “The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive.”
In the NPR interview, Brown defended herself against criticisms that she glamorized HIV. “In no way am I glamorizing HIV,” she said. “I’m talking about it. Marvelyn is glamorous, fabulous, all these things, but HIV is still a very hard disease to live with.”
Brown noted that when things get her down, self-love keeps her going. “A lot of people would regret it or whatever, but it really taught me self-love, self-acceptance, and self-responsibility. And that’s the best thing I could possibly ask for.”
Rudy Galindo, 53, is an internationally recognized figure skater who discovered ice skating when his older sister was taking lessons at the local rink. His talent for skating was not without its sacrifices. “My dad gave everything … so my sister and I could have skating lessons and stay off the streets,” he told Hispanic Network Magazine in 2018.
When Galindo was 13, he was paired up with skater Kristi Yamaguchi. Galindo and Yamaguchi won many championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a successful pairs team, after which they began participating independently outside of pairs. In 2000, Galindo revealed he was HIV-positive. Since then, he has been working to build awareness for HIV/AIDS research, and he thrives as a coach of young figure skaters in San Jose, California.
In 2013, Galindo was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Though his figure skating years are behind him, coaching is what Galindo loves. “I’ll be coaching until I die. … I will be here in a walker,” he told NBC Sports in 2020.
Nina Martinez never thought she’d be an athlete. Having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion weeks after being born, she found out she had HIV when she was 8 years old, after contracting chicken pox and subsequently requiring a blood test.
Martinez, 39, said in 2018 that she’d experienced an “unexpected adulthood,” having been told throughout her childhood that she would die young. She defied those perceptions, graduating from Georgetown University and Emory University while traveling to talk to college students about HIV prevention. Martinez is a runner who has finished five half-marathons and the Marine Corps Marathon. “I’ve had my fair share of physical discomfort,” she said in the 2018 interview. “It’s challenging in a different way. In some respects, being a patient prepared me to be a runner.”
Martinez enjoys running to raise money for HIV charities and HIV awareness. “There’s still this visceral reaction when somebody says they are HIV-positive. I get a lot of ‘I’m sorry.’ What are you sorry for? That I lived? At its core, it’s a virus. We should treat it as such.”
Notably, Martinez gained notoriety in 2019 for being United States’ first HIV-positive kidney donor. “I think for me, first and foremost, it’s the chance of showing people that I am just as normal as you,” she told Fox 5 Atlanta. “And, I don’t think there is any better way, or more powerful way, than to donate an organ.”
Gareth Thomas, 48, is a Welsh former professional rugby player with an impressive list of accolades: He’s one of the most-capped Welsh rugby union players, he’s ranked 14th among international try scorers, and he is the third highest Wales try scorer. He also won four rugby league caps for Wales.
In 2009, Thomas was the first professional rugby union player to come out as gay while still an active player in the sport. He retired from rugby in 2011. Since then, Thomas has become an activist for LGBTQ athletes.
In 2019, Thomas publicly shared his HIV-positive status, a move that made him think he would be ostracized. “This was something that I felt people wouldn’t understand,” he told The Guardian in 2020.
However, it turned out to have a positive impact on his life. “I actually feel kind of empowered and feel like I live a freer, happier life when I don’t have secrets,” he said.
Thomas has used his platform to advocate for LGBTQ equality, mental health, and HIV awareness. “I realized having HIV doesn’t limit me; it actually challenges me to make sure that every moment of my life I live to my full potential,” he told The Guardian. “I really, really was convinced I was going to die. I don’t feel like I’ve had this rebirth, but I do feel like I’ve had a rewiring. I’m OK with who I am. So it has changed my life, in an unbelievably positive way.”
Evelina Tshabalala is an accomplished marathon runner, mountaineer, and activist. She grew up in Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Tshabalala, 57, has endured unthinkable loss, having lost her father to a fatal assault and her son to drowning. She has also lost her brother and sister.
She won the first race she ever entered, a 10K, and then went on to win a 5K later that same day. At 19 years of age, Tshabalala ran her first marathon in such a fast time that she qualified for the South African Championships, where she won bronze.
Between crushing marathons and ultra-marathons, she noticed that her health was declining. It was affecting her running, so she decided to get an HIV test. “I said whatever the result, I will deal with it, I’ll be proud if it’s good, if it’s bad — I’ll be strong,” she said. She later found out she was HIV-positive.
Tshabalala is a founding member of the organization Positive Heroes. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the nonprofit promotes educational awareness around HIV and strives to reduce stigma and misinformation about the condition. Positive Heroes draws on role models like Tshabalala to drive home its message.
In addition to her running accomplishments, Tshabalala is an accomplished mountaineer. She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in Russia, and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peaks in their respective continents. “I’m a role model because I’m proof that life is not finished when you have HIV,” she told Positive Heroes.
On myHIVteam, the social network for people with HIV, more than 36,000 people come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with HIV.
Are you an athlete living with HIV? Do you have questions about leading an active lifestyle with HIV? Share your experience or questions in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.