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.