Former ND hockey player to bike across the nation
By COLLEEN McCARTHY
Associate News Editor
When the hockey season ends for the East Coast hockey league, Mobile Mysticks player, former Notre Dame hockey player and 1999 Notre Dame graduate Benoit Cotnoir will be taking the road less traveled.
During his hiatus from hockey, Cotnoir was deciding how to spend his summer and found that spending it working in a traditional summer job in an office was not for him. Instead, Cotnoir will jump on a bike and embark on a 3,600 mile journey across the United States from Seattle to Washington, D.C. as a participant in Bike Aid.
Cotnoir, a native of Quebec, Canada, said his family was initially suprised by his summer plans.
"My dad was like, "What? You aren't going to be earning money this summer?" Cotnoir said.
His father worried about Cotnoir's future.
"I want to go to graduate school eventually and need to earn money for that," Cotnoir said. "My mom was more concerned with the safety aspect because initially she thought I was going to be doing this alone."
"I explained to her that I will be with a group of people and now she is OK with the idea. Though one of the challenges of this for me is quieting my dad."
Cotnoir will join a group of over 50 individuals from around the world who will leave from either Seattle, Portland or San Francisco to travel to Washington, D.C.
The trip will take over nine weeks. Cotnoir will leave from Seattle in a group of 15.
Designed to raise awareness about social issues in the U.S. and abroad, Bike Aid participants must raise $3600 to participate. The money goes toward logistics of the trip, community service projects the cyclists will take part in throughout the trip and international organizations and national grassroots projects supported by JustAct — the organization sponsoring Bike Aid and the cyclists.
The community service aspect of the endeavor is what initially interested him, said Cotnoir. During the trip, the cyclists ride six days a week averaging 75 miles a day and perform community service in various locations on the seventh day of the week.
"Well, on the seventh day, God rested so on the seventh day of the week there will be a community service project set up for the group," Cotnoir said.
"What we will be doing will depend on the needs of the community. It may be painting a barn or helping at a food bank."
An economics major while at Notre Dame, Cotnoir became interested in service work following the summer after his junior year at Notre Dame.
"The NDCIB [now SIBC] offered internships abroad to students and I took an internship teaching marketing in Benin, Africa," Cotnoir said. "That was my first service experience and it was just awesome. It opened my eyes to service work. I thought that it was an incredible experience and it really changed me."
Initially, Cotnoir hoped to devote the summer after he graduated to service work. However, after talking to Andrea Smith Shappel, director of the senior transition program at Notre Dame's Center for Social Concerns, Cotnoir began to research his options.
"I wanted to do something different to replace taking a job," he said. "I went in and researched different options and found Bike Aid. I'm not a cyclist, I play hockey and that's what I do for a living, but I thought this would be a good learning experience."
In addition, Cotnoir believes this experience will compliment what he has done in the hockey rink and diversify his resume for when he eventually applies to graduate schools.
Shappell agreed with Cotnoir.
"I met Benoit when he was a senior, coming back from his experience in Africa and he told me he wanted to incorporate service work into his life," Shappell said.
"Even though it wasn't possible for him to do the summer service work last summer, I was impressed that he continued to seek out service opportunities while working on his hockey career."
Of the graduating class at Notre Dame, nearly 10 percent choose to do service after graduation, said Shappell. Cotnoir was not unusual in seeking guidance from Shappell for service options after he graduated.
She said she receives at least 75 requests a year from graduates looking for long- or short-term service projects.
"There have been a lot of creative ideas that people have come up with for service work," said Shappell.
"Incorporating hockey and his athletic gift with a desire to do service work to help others is what Benoit has chosen to do.
"Many people choose to incorporate skills they already have into their service work. We have a number of graduates who are doctors, nurses, or lawyers who choose to use their professional backgrounds to aid them in service work."
Cotnoir's task at hand is preparing financially and physically for the cross-country trek. He is currently focusing on the fundraising aspect.
"One of the challenges is to raise the $3600," Cotnoir said. "I have three main fundraising schemes. I'm hosting a fundraising dinner on March 26 here in Mobile, printing up t-shirts to sell for which I collected sponsors names to put on the back. I built a hockey stick coffee table made of broken hockey sticks that I will be selling raffle tickets for at Mysticks games."
He is currently halfway to raising the goal amount. Cotnoir hopes to have most of the fundraising done by the end of March.
As for training for the trip, Bike Aid does not provide participants with a training program. They have, however, given Cotnoir the names of past participants to seek advice. Cotnoir has also sought out others.
"I've tried to talk a lot to people who have experience in cycling," said Cotnoir. "I've started reading bicycling magazines to learn how to ride in a back and learn about the different kinds of bikes there are. People have given me a lot of hints and tips and I'm learning a lot from others.
"There is a bike shop here that has been very helpful and the people there said they will ride with me a few times before I leave. I'm not worried about the physical aspect. It should be hard and physically demanding but I think I will adjust over the nine weeks."
Cotnoir's priority right now is playing hockey for the Mysticks.
"Right now, that is my No. 1 priority," Cotnoir said. "The season ends in April and then the play-offs begin but as soon as the season is over, I'll start training.
"Most of the people who do this ride are not tri-athletes or super-athletes. I don't think you have to be in super shape to do this. Although, I do think you have to be physically fit and not just Joe Blow off the street."
Jill-Anne Fowler, a 25-year-old graduate student at Bowling Green State University took part in the trip last summer and has been talking frequently to Cotnoir, giving him advice and sharing her experiences from the trip with him.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life," Fowler said. "Physically and mentally it was so challenging. You find out how strong you really are. There were many parts of the trip where we would just stop and cry in sheer joy.
"You are seeing things you have never seen, experiencing things you have never experienced, and traversing the country on your own power."
Before the participants begin their bike trip, they will take part in a three-day orientation in Seattle.
Throughout the trip, the group will discuss various social issues, such as racism and incorporate what they learn into their community service projects in the towns they stop in along the way. The educational aspect of the trip is what makes it different from other distance rides.
The group will stay in YMCAs, churches, and private homes; eat meals with people in the communities they stop in and meet with grassroots organizations.
"We refer to it as a community on wheels," he said. "We'll be working together to make it across the country and to improve the country. Besides getting to know more about the people we are riding with, we'll be learning more about global and local issues."
The group becomes very close throughout the ride and she could "barely stand to part from the members of her group on the last day," said Fowler.
"Your individual mental strength only goes so far, you need the encouragement of the people around you to help you make it," she said.
Fowler said, however, the overwhelming joy she felt as the group rode into Washington, D.C. on the last day to the steps of the Capitol made it all worth it.
"We were about a mile away from the Capitol and we all just started screaming," she said. "People along the street started clapping as we road by. It was an incredible sense of accomplishment and unreality. We were like, `Oh my God, we really did this!'"
Cotnoir's biggest fear embarking on the trip is the weather.
"I chose to start from Seattle because I thought the weather would be cooler along that route, making it more comfortable to ride," Cotnoir said. "I'm especially worried about crossing the Rocky Mountains and things like that."
Fowler confirmed that traversing the mountains on a bike was one of the most challenging parts of the trip.
"On the second day of the trip we were climbing our first mountain and I thought I was going to die," she said. "It was 25 miles up the hill, but coasting down the hill for 20 miles and taking in all the scenery made it worth it."
Besides being physically challenging, Cotnoir will face other obstacles.
"I think that it will be a challenge to live with 15 to 20 people who you have never met in your life for nine weeks and to try to get along, but I think this will be a very important experience for me to have," he said.
Cotnoir will finish the trip in the middle of August and have three to four weeks to spare before it will be time for him to return to his professional minor league hockey team.
"The timing should be outstanding," said Cotnoir. "I should be in good shape. The team has been very supportive of me and this trip, which helps me a lot."
"Every physical and mental challenge the trip provides is worth it in the end," said Fowler. "This was a transforming and life-changing experience."
"You meet so many people as you go through these towns and you have the chance to make an impact on their lives," she continued.
"Whenever people like Benoit ask me about the trip, I tell them to do whatever they can to go on the trip. You will never again have the chance to experience the freedom that you do during those nine weeks until you are out on a bike, on the open road, with no material possessions to weigh you down. You are so in control of yourself. You only have your bike, a bit of food and water, the clothes on your back and you are living day to day and destination to destination."
Cotnoir will have Bike Aid t-shirts for sale at the CSC to benefit his trip starting next week.
To get in touch with Cotnoir regarding making a personal pledge/contribution for his trip, send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All News Stories for Friday, March 3, 2000