Lucas Courtney has all the evidence of a promising future; he’s a nationally ranked wrestler and hardworking college sophomore who shares an apartment with his loving girlfriend Caroline. And for Courtney, what’s just as important as these highlights is what cannot be seen: the HIV virus, which he carries from his birth mother and which is managed to the point of being undetectable thanks to modern medicine.
Athletics—not just wrestling but also lacrosse and other sports—have been part of his life since elementary school. As a child, Courtney was often in the spotlight on behalf of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and its work to research and prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. His years of training have prepared him for a new role: ambassador for living a healthy, normal life without the stigma that has long accompanied the disease.
When asked whether he has a mantra, Courtney responds readily: “Better every day.” It’s the phrase that his lacrosse coach put on the back of his new and struggling team’s sweatshirts. It was a phrase Courtney says he took to heart: “I feel like that’s a thing that’s very simple, that you can do every day no matter what you’re doing—improve on one thing every day.”
“Better every day”
The phrase was already part of Courtney’s life. Courtney was born in Oakland, California to a mother who used intravenous drugs and contracted the virus, passing it on to her son. He entered foster care at age 2, when his parents adopted him. They waited until he was 10 to tell him that he was HIV positive, after years of working hard to build a normal childhood around the routine required by his weakened immune system and frequent trips to the hospital (Courtney says he’s had pneumonia seven times).
That normal routine established by Courtney’s mother included a dinnertime ritual: Each member of the family had to name something he or she had worked on or improved that day, before being excused from the table. Courtney knew he had to say something, anything, to leave the table, but says, “As time went on, I found more appreciation for it because I actually started to do it. I figured, why not. It’s something I do even now, because it works.”
Courtney recalls another, more serious instance when his mother impressed upon him the importance of “better every day.” The medicine he took was in liquid form and tasted terrible, and he didn’t think it was doing any good. So he flushed it down the toilet or poured it down the sink drain, running the water so his mother wouldn’t know. When she caught him, she sat him down in her room and calmly told him that the medicine was making him better every day, even if he couldn’t feel it—and that without it, the virus would kill him.
Then Courtney says she added, “If [HIV] doesn’t kill you, then I will if you don’t take your medicine.” Slightly afraid she might be serious, the 8-year-old boy was persuaded to take his medicine.
“Better every day” was the idea that led Courtney to wrestling, as well. The coach was also one of Courtney’s teachers. “It was at tryouts and I was really nervous, and the coach came up to me and said, ‘You look nervous. Why?’ I told him I’d always been cut or not been given a starting position because I’m the smallest one on the team and because of my status and because of the health risks it brings.”
The coach walked Courtney off the field and said, “Look, I don’t care how small you are, how weak you are, how unskilled you are. Hard work and improving every day, that’s what gets you a starting job on my team.” Courtney says, “Feeling needed and appreciated, it made me work harder and play harder, and I ended up being a starter all four years. I never lost my spot. Because I wasn’t always the biggest or the fastest, but I was the hardest working.”
Courtney has a rigorous training schedule during wrestling season: Up at 5 a.m. for a run, followed by a high-protein breakfast of eggs and steak or chicken, a shower and training at the gym or at wrestling camp, college classes and homework, another run and finally, dinner and bed.
Courtney’s developed his own techniques for mental stamina and a competitive edge. He knows when he’s reaching his physical limit to step outside and take deep breaths of fresh air, to sharpen his focus. Sitting in class is taxing in its own way and he finds the cold cuts through the sluggishness so that he’s ready to go back into the gym to stare down his opponent even before they’ve entered the ring.
Thanks to his parents, coaches and friendships earned sometimes by breaking through ignorance, Courtney is remarkably self-aware and finally, self-accepting at 20. He works hard to maintain the inner resources to find his self-confidence when he needs it, while recognizing the difference between confidence and cockiness—and still allowing himself to cross that line once in awhile. After all, that’s a normal aspect of youth.
Accountable to yourself
As a child, Courtney was aware that his medical care was significant, and felt he was a burden to his family financially. He still feels that his health status requires more from the relationships in his life and he worries about it. At the same time, his mother’s solution—to hand over the responsibility for his medications to Courtney himself—taught him to hold himself accountable to himself. At 15, Courtney had to go to the pharmacy to get his medicine. “I hated it at the time because it was tedious and I had to haggle with [pharmacy staff] because they don’t know what they’re doing, sometimes,” he says.
Courtney came to realize, “This is a good opportunity for me to become more mature … because it gives me accountability. I have to be accountable for everything I do now.” That includes his own wound care if he gets a scrape or cut on the playing field, and social intelligence to read situations in which he can be open about his status and be accepted.
He’s learned to give and receive, perhaps the most significant hallmarks of a healthy life. Courtney’s adoptive mother succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2017, and Courtney’s final lacrosse match was at a field neighboring the cemetery where she was buried. He says he cried from the locker room all the way to the match. He missed every shot in the first half of the game and got benched. At half-time, with the score 13 to 0, his coach and teammates talked to him one by one in the locker room. Courtney says he also could feel his mother’s presence, telling him to calm down and stop overreacting. Back on the field, he says, “I scored the game-tying goal going to overtime and then the game-winning goal. It was a team effort. It felt like everything came together. My dad was there watching me—it was just perfect.”
“Collecting awards, being the MVP of the league and being all-league in lacrosse, and almost getting all-American and just being captain of a team that makes me feel I’ve actually made it. I went from my freshman year when no one knew who I was, to [walking] out of the locker room [and seeing] the other team stare at me and have a look of fear in their faces [that said] ‘I don’t want to wrestle him.’”
Courtney recalls a wrestling opponent his weight but bigger overall, badmouthing him on the sideline. Courtney overheard and said his coach said, “Well, shut him up.” Courtney says, “The first period was not fun for me, getting tossed around a lot. And then the second period, I pinned him in 10 seconds. And I just felt I can do it.” He admits he got a little cocky but allowed himself because “that’s when it actually sunk in. It doesn’t matter who I’m against, I can do it.”
Friends for life
With advances in medicine, Courtney’s regimen has evolved from multiple doses of medication daily to a single, once-a-day pill that makes HIV a manageable, chronic condition. While the medication renders the virus undetectable in his system, he’s still vigilant about it and grateful that Caroline protects her health with a medication called PrEP. Together, they are able to enjoy all the benefits of a healthy relationship.
Now the focus of Courtney’s battle is on the stigma that remains associated with the virus. “Growing up, the way HIV is perceived and the stigma around it, I didn’t have a lot of close, close friends because I couldn’t be 100 percent open with them—I couldn’t have any good friends for life,” he says. The real test came in the 8th grade, when Courtney—without much thought—posted his support for World AIDS Day on Facebook and revealed his status. He says a schoolmate approached him and said he still wanted to be friends, regardless of Courtney’s condition.
“I was prepared to say, ‘Look, I don’t care if you don’t accept me,’ but I realized I needed to shift [from a negative response to thinking ‘I actually go in and start [friendships] myself,’ or they won’t happen.” He now accepts that people who are uncomfortable and reject him don’t need to be his friends. “And that change in viewpoint—really, now I have friends that are going to be at my wedding.
Now, Courtney is pioneering a new role as an ambassador for EGPAF, demonstrating the possibility to live a happy, healthy life with a chronic condition called HIV. “Being a part of something that helps change lives that—even though that yours didn’t get a chance to be changed until a certain point—means you can go and change lives that haven’t even been created yet. And it gives me a sense of accomplishment and it’s just a bunch of good being done in the world. And it’s great being a part of it.”
What’s next for the college student and athlete? He plans to study psychology. “I want to be a sports psychologist or a coach because in high school, those were the people that really got me to accept myself. Being a good coach to someone, whether they’re trying to accept themselves, trying to find themselves in sports, or just trying to be better as a person…. You have to be a role model.”
Lucas Courtney joins Jake Glaser, son of EGPAF founder Elizabeth Glaser, in demonstrating that people who are HIV-positive can manage their condition through daily medication and live happy, normal lives. You can read more about Glaser’s efforts in 24Life, meet Courtney here and learn more about EGPAF here.
Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com