Curtis Lovejoy smiles with gold medal at the ParaPan American Games Toronto 2015.
After five Paralympic Games and eight medals in the sports of Para swimming and wheelchair fencing, Curtis Lovejoy has called it a career. An aggressive form of blood cancer, diagnosed in 2019, left the legendary swimmer’s future clouded, and he had previously decided to sit out the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 due to health concerns. Now, however, he has officially announced his retirement from swimming.
“In my case, I’m not willing to gamble with my life. Not right now, because I might have underlying conditions,” Lovejoy said of his decision to skip Tokyo. “The best thing for me to do is keep doing what I’m doing and stay safe.”
A Para sports legend, the 63-year-old has competed at five Paralympic Games, winning a total of eight medals in Para swimming and wheelchair fencing. He has left an indelible mark on the Para sports world.
This is his second bout with cancer, but, when he was initially diagnosed, the ordained Baptist minister said God told him to compete in one more Games.
The Atlanta native acquired a spinal cord injury in a car accident when he was 29. Although he initially feared swimming, he was breaking records a year and a half after getting in the pool.
He quickly made his mark in the Paralympic community. At the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000, he became the first Black Para athlete to win gold in swimming and fencing.
Lovejoy said swimming helped give him a sense of purpose.
“(My purpose is to) keep fighting, keep showing people that I can prevail no matter what I go through,” he said. “When I first started this journey, God told me, ‘I will transcend your name, and you have done that. You haven’t failed.’”
During National Black History Month, Lovejoy found himself reflecting the highs and lows of his career. He remembers the times when his will was tested, including one ugly incident at a competition earlier in his career that reinforced racism’s prevalence in American society.
“This guy came in in his wheelchair, and he said, ‘Anybody here named Curtis Lovejoy?’’ Lovejoy recalled. “I said, ‘It’s me.’ He looked at me, and he said, ‘You a n—.’ Everything just froze, because you don’t cross those lines.”
Lovejoy said he could have “attacked” the man, but that would not have helped.
Instead, he responded by saying, “I’m here to do one thing: To represent my country in swimming.”
He went on to bag three gold and one silver medals at the competition. But he acknowledges that in some ways, racism has worsened over the years.
“You can see it with your own two eyes,” Lovejoy said. “It’s said what happened at the (U.S.) Capitol on Jan. 6. … If that same scenario happened in the city of Atlanta, we would have locked the people up with a misdemeanor. But there is a double standard, make no mistake about it.”
Lovejoy said that as our political climate stokes racism in society, young athletes can combat that ignorance by familiarizing themselves with the history of the sports they participate in so they can be aware of those who paved the way.
“Athletes who are disabled and Paralympians who have (made an impact) should be posterized,” Lovejoy said.
The dual sport medalist recommended younger athletes focus on finding their purpose, and not worry about setting records or compiling stats. In his own case, he didn’t comprehend the lasting impression he’d made in the Paralympic community — and even within his own family — until his success in Sydney.
“I saw my father and mother standing side by side telling me, ‘We’re proud of you,’” he said. “I began to get teary eyed, because I didn’t know the magnitude of this performance.”
Along the way, he added, he learned some important lessons about himself and his competition. “I’ve learned to love everybody. Even when I’m competing, I don’t say, ‘Lord, bless me, don’t bless the guy in the second lane.’ … I’ve learned to be humble on this journey.”
Even as Lovejoy remains cautious during the pandemic, his love of life and the joy he takes from his achievements are not wavering.
“I’m not sad at all,” Lovejoy said. “We have to look at the whole spectrum of what I have accomplished. Five Paralympic Games. Won a boatload of medals in swimming and fencing. …
“It’s been an honor.”