The Laviolette Bridge towers 160 feet above the St. Lawrence River in Trois Riviéres, practically shaking with the wind as nearly 30,000 cars pass over it each day.
It is not meant for bikers or pedestrians, but to handle the crush of cars and trucks that travel over its two-and-a-half kilometers and cross the river halfway between Montréal and Quebec City.
Jordan Kozina found himself partway across it on his bicycle in the barely-existing shoulder, just inches away from roaring transport trucks on one side and a waist-high barrier that was the only thing between him and the St. Lawrence on the other.
It was much, much more than the former McMaster football running back had bargained for. Cycling across Canada to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis research, Kozina stopped at MS Society offices across the country. He simply wanted to cross the river to get to the office in Trois Riviéres, and having taken the only route on his map to get to the other side, was in a danger he had severely underestimated.
Slowly, step-by-step (pedal-by-pedal wherever possible, which was rare) he made his way across the Bridge, carefully negotiating the powerful gusts of wind and the precious few inches of space between him and the vehicles rumbling along beside him. After what seemed like an eternity, Kozina finally made his way off the bridge. He kneeled to the ground, shook his head in disbelief and let out a laugh at what he had done.
“I didn’t foresee it happening. I saw that there was a bridge on a map, but I’m not exaggerating – there was no shoulder,” says Kozina.
It wasn’t a bridge he wanted to cross. But like the cross-country journey he undertook in the first place, it was a ride – at this point, anyway – he needed to take.
Kozina visited 29 MS Offices and raised more than $25,000 for the journey, and donations can continue to be made until the end of December. The major goal of the expedition was to raise money and awareness for MS research.
But while Kozina the fundraiser put his mammoth task to good use for charity, Kozina the football player and person embarked on his journey to search for himself in a place and time where many athletes find themselves lost.
“My whole athletic life, I’ve lived for playing rugby and football. That was my gig,” says Kozina. “I knew I would need something else when I was done.”
After years of committing his time and his body to sports, Kozina, who bookended stints of rugby with the University of Victoria and Team Canada for the Rugby World Cup with four seasons of football for Mac, wasn’t ready to deal with a life not committed to sacrificing everything for a team.
It’s a problem unwillingly and eventually dealt with by student athletes of every sport and school. They come to school to receive an education and prepare themselves for the real world, but student athletes often find their time at school to be a chance to live their dream – especially for a star football player. Playing for a team with fans, a full-time coach, world-class facilities and a committed family of teammates is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It’s a big void. When it’s your main focus, it’s hard to let go,” says Kozina.
Candidly, Kozina says that while he’s happy he earned his History degree and enriched himself as a university student, his time on campus was an athletic endeavour first and foremost.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to keep playing sports. I’m really glad that I got an education, but I came here to play sports,” says Kozina, offering an honest assessment more varsity athletes would be sincere to admit.
Crossing the Laviolette Bridge was just one of many challenges faced by the Brantford native on his 99-day adventure (including dehydration, adverse weather and a charging pair of 800-pound elk on a lonely road in British Columbia). But with each adverse moment he stared down, Kozina was taking his own steps to exit a world of two-a-day workouts and film room sessions and enter a post-sporting life.
“I needed something to help clear my head and deal with it being over.”
Setting off on a trip that totaled more than 3,000 km and would raise tens of thousands of dollars for a charity just happened to be the task Kozina chose to be the vehicle for clearing his mind.
Crossing the country on a bike was never going to be easy.
“There were a few moments early on when I was like ‘I don’t know about this,’” Kozina remembers thinking to himself just 10 days into the trip.
But he completed every single kilometer of the journey to overcome the challenge he had presented himself. Even when his chain broke in central Newfoundland and the only way to fix it was to hitchhike eastward to St. John’s and have it repaired, Kozina hitched back to the original point where he had stopped to resume the journey.
The only time he skipped any stretch was the Confederation Bridge between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, which would have landed him in jail if he tried to cycle over it.
So did the arduous trip accomplish its goal for the 25-year old? Only Kozina – who admits there were times he was tempted to fast track his trip, enroll at Mac and re-join the football team with his one remaining year of eligibility – knows for sure.
But at the very least, he says that he’s learned a lot about himself and that life’s challenges are best embraced with patience and perspective.
“One of the things I came to realize is that challenge is relative and difficulty is relative. The things I thought were difficult before I left are like water under the bridge,” says Kozina. “There were points on the ride where I was down on myself and questioning the whole thing.
“But then I thought: a guy in a wheelchair (Rick Hansen) did this. A guy with one good leg (Terry Fox) was doing this. Even what I was doing was not difficult relative to what other people did.
“I think I learned as much about myself and my country and people in three months as I did in my time at McMaster and the University of Victoria.”
For now, Kozina is working for a landscaping company in Cambridge and playing the occasional rugby game with his old Brantford Harlequins club team. Another fundraising trip for the MS Society or another charity may be in the offing in the near future.
“I learned a lot about fundraising and working with a non-profit organization,” he says.
But for now, he’s content to set out on life after athletics.
When Kozina arrived at Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America and the last stop on his journey, he threw his bike – all but the seat – off the cliffs and into the ocean.
The trip was over and its purpose, fundraising, personal and otherwise, was served.
When examining his post-graduation future, Jordan Kozina wasn’t sure what his plans would be; all he knew was that he wanted to take a bike ride to think about it.
A star running back on McMaster’s football team for four seasons, many are familiar with the Brantford native’s penchant for getting first downs and marching his team up the field. But this summer, Kozina will be covering territory in a whole different way.
The ride that was meant to help him figure life out has turned in to a major undertaking itself: this summer, Kozina will be cycling across Canada to raise money and awareness for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just thought of taking a bike ride and thinking about it,” he said as if implying an afternoon stroll around town.
But once the history student starting getting some attention for his trek, the idea really got rolling.
“When I was planning it, I said to myself ‘this seems like something people might want to get behind,’ and I thought I would raise some money and do some good while I’m doing it,” said Kozina, at the campaign’s kickoff event this past Tuesday, riding a stationary bike from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the McMaster University Student Centre.
Multiple Sclerosis, commonly known as MS, is the world’s most common central nervous system disease. It’s an unpredictable disease that attacks the Myelin (protective wrapping) of the brain and spinal cord.
Victims of the disease suffer from a wide range of symptoms, notably the loss of vision, balance, mobility, hearing and memory. It’s a debilitating sickness that in most cases alters a victim’s life completely and permanently.
The disease is particularly common in Canada; an average of three Canadians per day are diagnosed with MS, and 240 in every 100,000 Canadians are diagnosed at some point, the highest rate in the world.
For Kozina, associating his trek with MS was an easy decision to make. In January, his aunt Mary passed away after a lengthy battle with the disease.
“MS is one disease that’s always been close to me. … I knew my Aunt Mar more as a kid, so I didn’t understand what she went through. It was only recently when things regressed and I started to notice it.”
Originally, he considered doing fundraising for acquired brain injury after a high school friend was severely injured in a car crash in Spain. But with his friend’s improved health and the passing of his aunt, it became clear that supporting the MS Society was the way to go.
“With my aunt passing and my friend being diagnosed, I was just like … it’s got to be MS,” said Kozina. “She was the first passing in my family, which affects people in different ways. It motivated me to do this.”
“I never knew her without it,” he adds.
As far as a cross-Canada journey, Jeff Dale, Chair of the Brantford chapter of the MS Society of Canada, says Kozina’s task is unprecedented.
“This is the first time I know of that anyone has done this for our cause. What Jordan is undertaking here is nothing short of phenomenal,” said Dale.
Flying out to British Columbia on June 12, the journey will begin in Tofino, BC and end in Cape Spear, NFLD – a total of over 9,000 km. Kozina is hoping the trek will take him “around three months,” and will consist of daily bike rides and stops at campsites.
Kozina has set a fundraising goal of $100,000, but wants to “blow that out of the water,” in terms of money and awareness raised.
While the journey is certainly a physically demanding task, Kozina’s impressive football – and rugby – resumé should put to rest any doubts about the 24-year old breaking down physically.
In four seasons with the Marauder football squad, Kozina totaled 2,439 rushing yards, including 1,191 as a rookie when he was named an OUA All-Star. Also a deft receiver, Kozina played a hybrid back position for McMaster the past two seasons, making the Marauder offence one of the most dangerous in the country.
But while he’s well known for his football career, his time as a rugby player is perhaps more impressive. A former member of Canada’s under-19 and -21 national teams, Kozina took a two-year hiatus from McMaster, enrolled at the University of Victoria and suited up for Canada at the Rugby Sevens World Cup in 2009.
“Hopefully I won’t be too skinny and lose too much weight on this trip,” joked the 210-pounder, who plans to return to the pitch with the Brantford Harlequins club team after his journey is finished.
While rugby and football have been Kozina’s passion for years, they’ll take a backseat to cycling for the next few months as the campaign gets underway. At its onset, the long journey and lofty fundraising goals are daunting. But as the launch date approaches, Kozina is simply excited to hit the road on his bike.
“I’m dreaming big with this. I feel like it’s attainable. Goals are meant to be broken.”