It's been said that the word "hero" is not a noun, but a verb. "Hero" requires action.
Stephen Kovacev certainly falls into that active definition. He's a 65-year-old, HIV-positive athlete and cancer survivor competing in the quadrennial Gay Games in Paris. The hometown boy is representing Provincetown, Massachusetts, in his eighth Gay Games, running in the marathon. Kovacev has competed in every Gay Games since 1990, competing as a runner and body builder.
A lifelong athlete, Stephen had suspicions that he might have HIV back in 1989, shortly before running his first marathon in Boston. He was diagnosed with HIV before attending his first Gay Games in Vancouver.
"I was HIV positive, and I was in my first Gay Games in 1990," Kovacev told me in a recent phone conversation from Paris. "I barely got to them because my partner [at the time] was so sick. Kevin was the love of my life, and he was diagnosed that winter. I didn't work because I was taking care of him. I couldn't get any training in, but I was young. My partner died shortly after those Games. He died on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 1990, just a few months after I came back from the Games."
He remembers that time, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, wondering how the Gay Games would continue. "How could they survive? How could any of us survive? I wondered the same thing at the Games in '94 in New York, how could this go on? But we did survive, and the Games have gone on."
Stephen continued to train and compete as an athlete despite his HIV status. After nearly dying of AIDS, he was devastated and spiritually bankrupt. He had friends who encouraged him to try alternative medications and faith in nature. "I lost the will to live," he said. "I was tired of fighting for my rights all my life, tired of seeing the atrocities. Sick of fighting to be well."
He spent all the money he had on alternative medications. "This was before the AIDS medications came out," Stephen said. "I had zero T cells and was deathly ill."
A friend asked why he wanted to live. "I didn't know how to answer her, because I was so sick. I couldn't walk, I was so sick from AIDS." Then an answer came to him. "I told her, this might sound crazy, but I want to run another marathon."
Stephen did recover and in 1997 became the first AIDS survivor to run the Boston Marathon. That same year, he was part of the all HIV/AIDS crew of Survivor in the 1997 TransPac, a biennial boat race from Los Angeles to Honolulu.
Stephen is grateful for the alternative treatments he used before the HIV medications came out. "They kept me alive, but when the medications came out, it was like, 'Oh, wow! These really work!'"
As an active athlete, Stephen has been very aware of the challenges brought on by HIV/AIDS. Last year, he received another challenge, a cancer diagnosis. "I had [human papillomavirus] (HPV) throat cancer. I had radiation every day, chemo. Fortunately, I responded to the treatment in such a way as to now be considered cancer free." He continued: "And my partner, Rick, he's fantastic. I couldn't have gotten through cancer without him."
Stephen is back at the Gay Games, disproving stereotypes of what someone living and ageing with HIV looks like. "I'm just hoping to make it to the finish line! I'm older now, and I have to accept that [the other runners] blow by me." He said with a chuckle: "It's my turn to be left behind. But it's OK. Life is about ego; it's about dropping your ego. That's fine. It their turn; my turn's past. But I'm still in the game."
"I find myself the oldest survivor of AIDS running marathons today," he said. "As the Olympic Games remember and honor the great athletes of the past, so I also remember and celebrate all those who fell on the battlefield of AIDS." Stephen credits his family and friends for all their support, and thanks his sponsor for the Games, Jay Anderson.
"It's pretty miraculous that I'm still here," Stephen said, "but life is miraculous."
The Gay Games take place in Paris Aug. 4-12, 2018.