The joy on his face when he completes the finish line in every marathon is unbeatable. The pleasure of running with people around him and completing the distance makes him feel victorious. What takes a back seat is his HIV-positive status, which does not affect his run or his life.
Meet Sanjay, a 20-year-old HIV-positive runner from Bengaluru who is a regular face at marathons held in the city.
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Sanjay is one of the many kids born to HIV-positive parents. He clings to his brimming positivity and says that HIV has no room in his life.
“I am a healthy, independent person, a passionate runner and a working professional,” says Sanjay who spent most of his childhood in Sneha Care Home, a home for Children Living with HIV (CLHIV) in Bengaluru.
Sanjay works in the human resource wing of a private company where he does background verification of fresh recruits. “In my workplace, my colleagues recognise me for my work and passion for life. It has been an encouraging space,” he says.
When he was six years old, he suffered from a skin infection, that was later diagnosed as herpes. “Because of my skin condition, I was not allowed to be out of the house, as exposure to sunlight led to a burning sensation on the skin. My mother was very protective of me,” he recalls. Due to the lack of nutritious food and low immunity, his skin condition became worse. “I was taken to Sneha Care Home, and I also got the required treatment,” says Sanjay. That was the last time Sanjay was down with a sickness.
He admits that he doesn’t understand how a person with HIV can be discriminated against. “To those who discriminate, I ask, can you work like me? Can you run like me?” He believes that it is his self-confidence that helps him move on in life.
The first marathon Sanjay took part in was the Bangalore Marathon in 2015. He was 12 years old and he took 23 minutes to complete five kilometres. Since then, he has run in several marathons and fondly remembers every run.
What turned his life towards running and sports was the Champion in Me programme, started by Elvis Joseph, director, coach and mentor at Bangalore Schools Sports Foundation. Joseph has been training Sanjay for almost 14 years.
“It all started with Champion in Me, a unique initiative that I started in 2008 with 20 children living with HIV. We trained and hosted a sports meet for them. It’s the first of its kind sports programme in the world which focuses on empowering lives and eradicating stigma and discrimination and bringing people to the mainstream by building equality and immunity. Sanjay was part of the programme and he loves sports,” says Joseph in a telephonic conversation with Happiest Health. He is currently in Turkey training a para-athlete from India.
Lukas Redemann, project coordinator for Transform4Europe at Saarland University, Germany, who used to visit Sneha Care Home from 2013-14 as a volunteer recalls his engagement with Sanjay in an email interaction with Happiest Health.
Redemann used to teach children Maths and English and take care of extracurricular activities and football. Redemann, proud of Sanjay’s accomplishments recalls that Sanjay was very keen to learn – not only during classes but also in his free time. “Sanjay was one of the first children to approach me, asking many questions about my life in Germany. Not content with simple answers, he always wanted to know more,” says Redemann.
Redemann found Sanjay to be a very engaged football player. “As one of the older boys, he was ready to take a leading role in the team and always motivated his mates to get better and to give their best. Taking part in decision-making was always very important to him; he always wanted to feel involved. Naturally, he was also a very good football player who could easily keep up with the kids I knew at home. His HIV status never stopped him from pursuing his goals in life and sports,” says Redemann.
In 2015, when Sanjay was about to enter his teens, he was sent to Snehagram, Sneha Care Home’s sister organisation in Tamil Nadu. Snehagram is a vocational training and rehabilitation centre for children living with HIV where he was further encouraged in sports.
Sanjay now cherishes dreams of playing football professionally.
His mother is proud of his journey. She is a counsellor who works with people with HIV. “We suffered a lot of discrimination, and my son has gone through stigma, in both public and personal circles. It is a matter of pride to see him growing now,” she says. But she adds that the lack of an inclusive atmosphere still hurts her.
His fitness mantra
Sanjay keeps himself hydrated throughout the day. “I drink lots of water and that’s my medicine. I drink no less than 10 litres of water. I know this exactly because I fill my one-litre bottle at least ten times a day,” says Sanjay, who consciously eats nutritious food and avoids all junk food.
His aim is not to win, but to run with people
While he enjoys running the marathon, he doesn’t dream of winning a medal. He just focuses on completing the distance. “I don’t want to complete my run alone. I want it to be with other runners and that’s what I enjoy,” says Sanjay.
Sanjay has been on anti-retroviral therapy. “It’s just one tablet a day and I ensure I don’t miss it,” he says.
He says that HIV does not affect him. “With HIV, I will show the world that I am healthy, happy and a champion,” says Sanjay.
Joseph says that Sanjay always had a desire and passion for sports. “He is a promising athlete and a role model to the country,” he says. Joseph points out that sport is a much-needed immunity-building measure, especially in children born with HIV.
Sanjay derives inspiration from the Argentinian footballer, Lionel Messi. He is equally a fan of the Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo. “I want to meet Messi and Ronaldo one day,” he says.
British actor, Henry Cavill who played the role of superman also inspires him. “He is my motivator, I wanted to become like him – the superman,” he says.