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Thomas, Gareth (b. 1974)  
 
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Very few male professional athletes have publicly come out as gay at the height of their careers. Among the small number who have found the courage to do so are two internationally acclaimed rugby superstars: Australia's Ian Roberts and Wales' Gareth Thomas.

The man who would become one of the most celebrated rugby players in Welsh sports history did not grow up with ambitions that would take him far beyond the little village of Sarn in southern Wales where he was born on July 25, 1974. His father was a postman, and Thomas was set to follow in his footsteps.

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Thomas came relatively late to the sport of rugby, not taking it up until he was a teenager. He was motivated more by the wish to have an activity in which to participate with his friends than by a passion for the game, but he quickly showed abundant talent and became enthusiastic about playing.

Once Thomas finished his schooling, he took a job with the post office but also continued developing his rugby skills, playing on a club team in the nearby village of Pencoed. His abilities won him a spot on the Wales Youth team in 1993. His play caught the eye of Gerald Williams, the coach of a team in the neighboring city of Bridgend, who recruited the promising youth.

Thomas was tall—six-foot-three—but skinny, and he knew that he needed to add bulk and strength to succeed at the next level; therefore, he began a weight-training program that would give him an imposing, muscular, 225-pound physique.

Initially, Thomas juggled his post office job and rugby, sometimes beginning a day's work at 4:30 in the morning and then giving his all on the playing field in the afternoon; but eventually he left his job as a postman for one in operations with the Bridgend club in order to concentrate on his career in sports.

His efforts were rewarded with an invitation from the Welsh Rugby Union to take part in the training camp that would select the national team for the 1995 World Cup—an invitation delivered into his hand at the local post office by his ecstatic father.

It was the chance of a lifetime, but Thomas hesitated on the drive to Cardiff, fearing that the greater scrutiny that would come with being a member of the national team might bring to light the homosexuality that he had so assiduously concealed and with which he was particularly struggling as a male athlete.

Thomas had recognized that he was gay at around sixteen years of age and had had his first sexual experience with another young man at eighteen, but he tried to repress his feelings.

Of his initial encounter he told Helen Weathers of the Daily Mail, "At the time it felt right, but afterwards it felt wrong, and I promised myself it would never happen again. . . . I used to pray constantly and ask God: 'You have given me this great talent to play rugby. There must be some kind of answer.' But there wasn't one."

Even showing up a day late for camp with no good excuse, Thomas made the national team and turned in a stellar performance in his first outing for Wales, scoring three goals against Japan.

Playing for one's national team earns a rugby player a cap—sometimes presented in physical form and always tabulated as a mark of honor for an elite player. By taking the field for Wales, Thomas was on his way to setting a record for caps for his country.

Thomas remained on the Welsh national team until 2007, finishing with an impressive one hundred caps.

When not playing internationally, Thomas continued his career in Welsh rugby and was a favorite with fans, who cheered for the sports hero they called Alfie. Thomas had been tabbed with the nickname as a teen when one of his friends decided that his red hair and large nose were reminiscent of the features of the title character in the American television sitcom ALF, a fuzzy extraterrestrial.

In the case of the character, ALF stood for "alien life form." The feelings of difference that Thomas harbored often left him thinking of himself as something of an alien being as well.

Thomas's prowess has drawn the admiration of coaches and fellow players throughout his career. Commented Steve Hansen, former coach of the national team, "He's an athlete's athlete—he's big, strong, fast, and powerful. But not only that, he brings with him attitude, bags of courage and bravery. You don't often get a package of qualities like that in rugby."

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Gareth Thomas in 2007.
  
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