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Josh Kozelj at 2017 Bazan Bay 5K in Sidney, BC, 20-minutes north of Victoria. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

Josh Kozelj is a third-year student and athlete at the University of Victoria. He is majoring in Writing, a degree program in the Fine Arts department. He is also a strong distance runner.

While writing for the university’s publication, The Martlet, he also produces content for the Victoria HarbourCats, a collegiate summer elite-level baseball team in the competitive West Coast League. An emerging podcaster, and storyteller, Kozelj has written some intimate first-person articles that were published in the Globe and Mail. The articles have resonated deeply within the close-knit Canadian running community.

HarbourCats owner told Athletics Illustrated, “He’s contributed a lot to our organization for two years, supporting Christian (Christian J. Stewart, Assis. GM)  and our broadcast in many ways, shows a lot of promise as a writer, and his story is one that is inspiring for many.”

In 2018, using an oft-written story format titled, “If I could write a letter to my younger self,” he started off with, ‘Josh, put down that knife, you are just 14 years old,’ exploring his own suicidal thoughts.

The second article visited another personal battle where he displayed symptoms of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), an increasingly researched and hot button topic in the running and sports world. RED-S can be manifest an eating disorder or ‘disordered eating’. 

It was previously known as female athlete triad or the triad, but is found to also affect males and can have lifelong repercussions and can be potentially fatal.

One could argue that neither so-called disorder was really the issue, but rather depression or manic thoughts manifested that way – perhaps under different circumstances, he would have had other self-destructive thoughts. Sport and specifically running is part of the solution – councelling is important too.

“I wrote them in the hope that it will make a difference for others who may be suffering from their own battles,” he tells me mid-way through a clubhouse sandwich at Maude Hunter’s pub, located near the campus. I offered a beer, but he is disciplined and had to get up early for an 8:30 am session with the Vikes. 

Kozelj was two days removed from the Canada West Cross Country Championships. He finished 16th. Not bad, and he was okay but not excited about the performance.

“Those Calgary guys are very strong,” he added. “I think I could feel the semi-elevation. I definitely felt that my breathing was heavier during the race.” 

It was snowing in Calgary. Unseasonably cold and certainly cold for a west coast athlete who was already fighting the thoughts of a toque and gloves in Victoria as the temperatures hovered around 10 to 12 degrees. 

“We got up in the morning and it was sunny, by the time we got to the race site, it was snowing sideways. Once the race was over, it was sunny again.” 

The aphorism, ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes,’ applies to Calgary in the summer and shoulder seasons. 

As pithy as that expression is, it was cold even for Calgary and the University of Calgary Dinos had home course advantage. They also happen to be the defending U SPORT Cross Country Champions.

The 2019 U SPORT Championships will take place in Kingston, ON on Nov. 9.  

Kozelj started running with seriousness in Grade 10, but he started the year before more casually. He was a basketball and football player and had dreams of making the NFL one day, that is until he knew that his ectomorph-like body was suited more for running distances fast than bouncing off of linebackers.

Personal bests:

3000m – 8:36 (2018 Harry Jerome)
5000m – 14:37 (2018 Portland Track Festival)
5K road – 15:10 (2018 Bazan Bay)
10K road- 30:57 (2018 Sun Run)

Three-time BC Team member: Junior cross country team (2016, 2017), and 10K Road Running team in 2018. Seventh overall at Jr. Nationals at ACXC in 2017 

Christopher Kelsall: Why did you choose the University of Victoria four years ago?

Josh Kozelj: Honestly, I think one of the biggest reasons I chose UVic was how much I connected with Brent Fougner. I played a lot of basketball through middle school and my first two years of high school and didn’t start training for track and cross country competitively until Grade 10.

I was always pretty fast up and down the basketball court and ran the Sun Run every summer (April) for fun with my father or uncle. But I emailed Brent after my first cross country season in Grade 10, expressing interest in potentially running for the Vikes after high school, and he responded within a day telling me to keep on working hard.

It may seem like something small, but that willingness to even email me back, after running for just one year, really showed that he cared about me. I met Brent later that year at BC Clubs in Abbotsford, and he reminded me of my club coach Paul Self—who was like a second father to me – when I trained with the Coquitlam Cheetahs. They were both down to earth and easy to get along with, and I immediately connected with him. I officially visited UVic during my Grade 12 year and I fell in love with the team, city, and new facilities at CARSA. Plus, Victoria is just a short ferry ride from Coquitlam, so I was still pretty close to my family.

CK: Vikes are a close-knit team, aren’t they? Once a Vike, always a Vike?

JK: Yes.

CK: They have always had a family-type culture. Bridging the gap between the Brent Fougner days (now retired) to the Hilary Stellingwerff time, does that culture continue?

JK: Totally. The team has always felt like a second family to me, and that hasn’t changed this year. These people on the team are friends and I hope to stay in touch with long after I finish running. I mean, many of us are living away from home for the first time, so we are in similar positions trying to figure it out at university and rely on each other for advice. Hilary and Brent have done an amazing job with recruiting and fostering a family culture here at UVic. 

CK: You get along well with Brandon Vail.

JK: He is like family to me, he is like a brother. The Vikes though, we are all like family. When someone does well on the team, it is like a family member doing really well. We are all very close – we are all away from home for the first time and we are going through the experiences at the same time.

CK: He did well in Calgary and it seemed that he started to race well again after the Coffee Cup Classic this summer, yes?

JK: Yes. That 3,000m seven-second personal best was a great run for him and showed what he may be capable of. His first-year injury was tough as he was off, and it affective his second year too. He is running well now though. 

CK: Which of the three seasons do you enjoy racing the most between cross country, indoor and outdoor track?

JK: Cross country, without a doubt. I love the longer distances, and see myself as a half and full-marathon runner after university. In high school I actually didn’t like track, I thought running seven or more laps in a circle was so boring. I love running throughout the trails, climbing up hills, slogging through the mud, everything involved with cross country. In the years since, however, I’ve grown to love track too. I’d never run indoors before coming to UVic, so that first 3,000 I did, knowing I had to run 15 laps on a 200m indoor track was a bit of a shock, but you kind of get in a rhythm and settle in for a long grind—like cross country.

CK: What other sports did you play growing up in Coquitlam?

JK: I was the kid that played almost every sport growing up. I played tennis, baseball, golf, swimming, football, and basketball—almost every sport besides running. The sport I was most passionate about was football. I dreamed of becoming a wide receiver or cornerback in the NFL and played a year of football in middle school. But after realizing my six-foot and 140-pound lanky frame wasn’t conducive to football, my NFL dreams were quickly dashed. Like I mentioned before, I didn’t start running until Grade 10 and played basketball pretty competitively in high school.

CK: Have you done much running around Belcarra or Burnaby Mountain or around the Westwood Plateau area? Is there a good trail system in that area?

JK: Yeah! Coquitlam is an underrated running spot in Vancouver. There are so many great places to run. Bert Flinn Park, which is actually in Port Moody and beside my high school Heritage Woods, was two kilometres from my house. Mundy Park is always a great place to run, so is the Coquitlam River trail, and the De Boville Slough trail. 

CK: Were you on the team at that time when the boys went out late at night on the road in Oregon, I think, to find pizza and ended up running the marathon distance by mistake? Have you heard that story? I assume they lost that meet.

JK: Ha-ha. No! I wasn’t on the team then, nor heard that story.

CK: It’s possible that only I know that story – possibly kept from Brent for obvious reasons. What are your goals for this year?

JK: I think we as a team can surprise some people this year. We’ve got a lot of young runners that are taking massive steps in workouts, and I’m excited to see what they can do come U SPORTS for cross country and track. As an older athlete, I can see the building blocks for a competitive team and hope to serve as a mentor and role model for the younger athletes on our team. Personally, I want to finish my season and avoid feeling burnt out. Last year was probably my hardest from a running standpoint, as I finished in June completely sick of running and needing some time off from the sport. As for specifics, I hope to improve on my U SPORTS finish from last year (29th) and help the team out the best I can! 

CK: Canada West as a standalone, rather than within the U SPORT championships?

JK: It’s nice to have a conference as a whole, it is nice that we have our own meet for CanWest there is lots of talent out there and so it is great to compete against these guys, just in our own meet.

CK: Happy with 16th?

JK: Happy – yeah it was good – been top-14 in the past, so the last few laps were not my day. I lost a few places. As mentioned, Vail ran very well – it was great to see that – after a year-long injury.

Watching some of the younger guys improve from year one to now, it is inspiring to watch their growth.  

CK: Considering that journalism is a different world now, in terms of career and finances, what is it about the profession that attracted you?

JK: Trevor Linden, believe it or not. I grew up with newspapers around. My dad read the paper and as a kid, I was always reading them. My father had subscriptions to the Province and the Sun. 

We went downtown to watch the Canucks a lot. I was there at Roger’s Arena for Trevor Linden’s final game when he retired. I had my Canucks gear on and I waited for him to come off the ice, and I put my hand down to high-five him. He high-fived me and that was a big day for nine-year-old Josh. The following day, he was on the front page of the sports section and so was that high-five. It was exciting. Every day since then I wanted to be a sports journalist.  

You know, just the power of story-telling and writing one person’s story that may illuminate issues, perhaps impact a wider audience. I like to find stories that resonate, that shine a light on things.

I wrote those Globe and Mail articles to let people know that those who may be suffering are not alone.

We all try to be perfect, but no one really is. If I can help one person with what they are going through with depression, those larger issues, I feel I may have made a difference.

For example, if you read the Athletic or the Players Tribune, there are stories that affect a wider audience than just the one within the sporting world. Mental illness is not just topical right now, but it is out in the open. It is okay to have to deal with it in a public way. Some of those stories like DeMar DeRozen’s and Kevin Love’s for example really resonate.

Love wrote a piece about a panic attack that happened to him during a game. It was serious and he didn’t realize it at the time, it sparked a discussion and that is something that I see myself doing as a sports journalist in my future. 

CK: Saving lives through storytelling while running marathons?

JK: Yes.