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After Beating Stage IV Cancer, This Triathlete Is Headed to Kona

Brian Kozera
 credits exercise and triathlon training as key elements in his survival. Now he's raising money for a cause and spreading a spirit of optimism.

Brian Kozera sat in his doctor’s office, his head between his hands in disbelief.

“How could this happen to me?” he cried. “I’m an athlete. I take care of myself. How did I even get Stage IV cancer?”

The doctor leaned in and looked Kozera directly in the eyes. “Sometimes a cell divides poorly and becomes cancer,” he said firmly. “Now do you want to worry about how you got cancer, or do you want to get to work on beating it?”

Every time Kozera tells this story, he sits up proudly and recalls how that question changed his life. “I told my doctor I wanted to beat it, and I have never looked back since.”

As a lifelong endurance athlete, Kozera was no stranger to doing hard things. After years of serving on the National Ski Patrol, participating in GORUCK challenges and 12-hour adventure races, the Blue Bell, Penn. resident took up triathlon on a whim. “My adventure racing partner, Joanna, and I were talking about what we wanted to do in 2013. Joanna said she wanted to do an Ironman before she was 30. So we signed up for Ironman Louisville. At the time, I didn’t even own a road bike.”

Kozera thrives in what he calls “prevailing moments”–achievements that are equal parts physical and mental, requiring mental toughness, perseverance, and a willingness to fully experience the emotions of an event, both good and bad. Before his diagnosis of Stage IV Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, these moments often came during tough training sessions and hard races. This sentiment took on a new meaning as he fought through a grueling treatment regimen that included a bone marrow transplant. The rigors of treatment, in a way, were familiar to Kozera, who relied on lessons learned from his endurance training to get through. Exercise itself also proved to be a comfort. Shortly after his transplant, the patient could be found soft-pedaling on a stationary bike in his hospital room.

“Exercise and training were really the only things I could control, and it contributed to my survival,” Kozera recalled.

Training also gave him a target to focus on as he aimed to return to the race course after remission. “I decided, post-cancer, that I wanted to live for and experience as many prevailing moments as possible,” he said. “Ironman is a significant and daunting race. Most people can’t ever see themselves taking on that challenge. It’s like battling cancer in that way–no one can see themselves ever having to fight that fight.”

Now in remission, Kozera has set out to show he not only has survived, but is thriving. He has returned to racing, this time as a member of Team in Training to raising money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society (LLS). Because of his story, LLS has presented him with the opportunity to create another prevailing moment–this time, at the 2021 Ironman World Championship, where he will race as an LLS ambassador to raise funds and awareness.

“The opportunity came out of nowhere, at the perfect moment in my life,” said Kozera. “Ironman’s slogan is ‘Anything is possible.’ It’s true for triathlon and for beating cancer. I have the opportunity to race in a way that shows others it’s possible if you believe.”