NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CNS) — The universality of the Catholic Church has helped Olympian and world champion shot putter Joe Kovacs keep his faith front and center no matter where his sport has taken him.
“(I) have to say that one of the coolest things about the Catholic faith … is that every time you go to a church in a different country the format of the Mass is the same,” Kovacs, 27, told Columbia magazine, published by the Knights of Columbus, based in New Haven.
“In most countries, I know only enough words to order food in their languages, but when I go to church, I know what’s going on and can participate in Mass,” he said.
Columbia interviewed Kovacs before he took the silver medal in the shot put event Aug. 18 at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A Q-and-A with the world-class athlete was published in the August issue of Columbia.
Kovacs is a 2007 graduate of Bethlehem Catholic High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the Diocese of Allentown, and a Knight of Columbus himself. The All-American shot putter has a bachelor’s degree in energy business and finance from Pennsylvania State University.
In the interview, he described how his faith and his Catholic community back home play a major role in his life. He was raised in a Catholic home by his parents, Joseph and Joanna Kovacs.
He talked about the important role his mother has played in his life — and his sports career. She raised him as a single mother; his father died of cancer when Kovacs was 7. The next day his grandmother, Joanna’s mother, died.
“That experience brought us very close together. The whole time growing up she was juggling a bunch of different roles, and she was always there for me,” he told Columbia.
For a brief time, his mom was even his coach at Bethlehem Catholic, he said.
“We didn’t have a track or a facility. I started track just to stay in shape for football, which was my primary love and sport at the time,” Kovacs said. “My mom came to practice and realized we didn’t really have a coach for shot put and discus. Because she knew some things about throwing, having been district champion back in her day, she helped me out.
“She found a coach who knew a lot, and we’d drive down to Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) every Sunday after church and meet with him. I’d practice, and my mom would learn with me, which really brought us together and helped me a lot in the sport,” Kovacs recalled.
The Kovacs are close to priests who are Missionaries of the Sacred Heart — they are the priests at their parish, Holy Family in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The congregation’s retirement community is about 20 minutes from the Kovacs’ home.
“The whole community of priests and sisters in the area really helped me and my entire family get through that tough time” of losing his father and grandmother one after the other, Kovacs said.
“They helped me with my faith, but they also helped me do things that aren’t the norm,” he said, explaining that one of the priests, Father Joe Gleixner, who was his confirmation sponsor, “helped me a ton.”
“I was in a lot of science fairs in high school, and he showed me how to build things,” Kovacs said. “We built a wind tunnel together. One of the retired priests also helped me chip a golf ball around their grounds, and that’s how I learned to have a good golf swing. So the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart have been very close to my family. They weren’t just role models, they were friends, and I consider them all part of my family.”
Kovacs was a freshman in college when he decided to join the Knights of Columbus. In high school, he said, he belonged to the Columbian Squires, the Knights’ international youth fraternity.
“As a little kid, it was the guys with the swords who were really cool,” he said. “But I got close to the Knights at church just because they were really cool, (were) always the people volunteering, holding events.
“They have done so much in our community. So that’s what attracted me — I realized that the people I looked up to or wanted to become were part of this great organization,” he added.
Kovacs talked about his coach, Art Venegas, who he said comes from a Catholic upbringing and taught at a Catholic school before he went to the collegiate level. “He’s a very old-school coach and one of the craziest and loudest people you’d hear, but he has great values and a strong faith,” Kovacs said.
“I was at the Vatican last year, and when I came home, I gave his mother a rosary blessed by the pope because she always says a rosary for me every time I go on a trip,” the athlete added. “And on competition day, she’s always praying I won’t get hurt. It feels good to be associated with people who know the Catholic faith.”