First published in The Record, June 7, 2017
Going the distance for love
For a man who won the attention of a world-class ballerina by jogging across the United States, Cuba, France, Great Britain, Ireland and Switzerland, Slava Koza has terrible form. A natural athlete he is not.
Koza runs with his 6-foot-2 frame hunched forward, like a crab. His right arm swings in broad circular arcs, counterbalanced by the akimbo sway of his left foot, which slams the pavement like a falling hammer.
Alina Dronova, the international ballerina, does not mind the physical limitations of her brand-new fiancé. She does not care that Koza’s strange method of courtship — running 6,290 miles across six countries — strikes her friends as either impossibly romantic or borderline psychotic.
In fact, she doesn’t care about Koza’s running at all.
“The running is great, but it has nothing to do with me,” said Dronova, 33, a Ukraine native and Fort Lee resident who has performed as a professional ballerina for 17 years. “That’s not the reason I fell in love with him.”
What was it, then? How did Koza, an attractive but awkward guy who lived with his parents into his 30s, win the heart of a beautiful and accomplished dancer who socializes with the global elite?
“She had her idea of what a boyfriend should be,” said Koza, 33, who teaches chess at the Teaneck- and Fair Lawn-based International Chess Academy, founded by his aunt, a former Moldovan chess champion. “I was not that.”
The lovely ballerina was not swayed by Koza’s grand gestures, like running across the Rocky Mountains or the Alps. What mattered were the small things.
He showed up.
He paid attention.
He listened, and acted on what he heard.
“I was dating people because they had accomplished something. But Slava didn’t have any of those things,” Dronova said. “This person may not be famous or rich, but he has a good heart.”
The start of this love story seemed as improbable as its finale. Dronova and Koza met in 2009 when they were introduced by their mothers, who were friends. They ended up at The Cheesecake Factory in Hackensack.
“I think we really connected,” Koza said.
He is wrong, Dronova said. The date was awful. Slava was good-looking, she said, and he seemed nice. But he sat with his body turned away from her, his eyes cast downward at the table.
He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes ― something he told her he routinely does when his chess students misbehave. Later he walked her to her car, said “Bye!” and walked away.
“He seemed really smart and nice, but super shy,” Dronova said. “I could tell didn’t have a lot of social interactions with girls.”
They went on another date, to the movies, and that was all. Koza continued teaching chess and living with his parents in Bergenfield. Dronova continued touring the world as a dancer. They texted occasionally. Dronova made clear she had no interest in dating.
“I thought we could be friends,” she said.
Koza, meanwhile, believed he had met his soulmate, and lost her. Dronova seemed so kind, so smart, so beautiful. He went on dates with other women, but none compared to the ballerina. How could he get another chance?
Koza was jogging near his parents’ house when a thought occurred to him.
“People say they would go to the ends of the earth for love,” he said. “But they’re not trying to make it a reality. What if I turn it into a real thing?”
So he did it. Starting in April 2012 in Dillon Beach, Calif., north of San Francisco, and ending 118 days later at Lincoln Center in New York City, Koza ran 3,055 miles.
Here’s the craziest thing: He never told Dronova about the run. And he never said it was for her.
“Why didn’t I tell her? Well, it seemed crazy,” he said. “We didn’t know each other. It would seem weird and out of the blue.”
There was another reason.
“If I didn’t tell her it was for her,” Koza said, “there was still hope.”
A proposal overlooking the Rhone
He kept his secret for a year. Finally, in 2013, he texted the news to Dronova one night before flying to Europe to start his second run, 838 miles across Great Britain.
Koza may have been naïve about women. But his guess about how Dronova might react was spot-on.
“I said, ‘What? That’s crazy!’ ” she said. “Our dates didn’t go well. You don’t know me. So why are you still pursuing me?”
Koza completed his Britain run. A year later, he ran across France. He chose the country because Dronova often says she was born with a French heart, and also to prove a point about her French boyfriend.
“There you go. There’s France,” he said. “What does that French guy say now?”
The runs did not make Dronova fall in love. But they did get her attention.
“I had this boyfriend I was giving all my time to, and he was not willing to do anything for me,” Dronova said. “And this other guy who doesn’t know me, he went and ran across France only because I said I love France.”
In 2015 Koza ran across Cuba and Ireland, all for Dronova. She did not care. But while he was abroad, Koza bought her favorite soaps and skin lotions, which she couldn’t find in the States. When food poisoning sent her to a hospital, Koza left work to visit her in the emergency room.
“He showed up,” Dronova said. “When Slava said he wanted to be with me, he actually meant it.”
On May 31, Koza completed the final cross-country run of his five-year courtship. He ran 310 miles from Müstair in eastern Switzerland to the western border with France. Dronova was waiting there, on a bridge over the Rhone River. They kissed, and then walked uphill to Restaurant Le Virage, which overlooks the river valley.
Koza’s knees hurt. His feet were swollen. He did not care. Outside the restaurant, he dropped to one knee and proposed. She cried, and said yes.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said in a phone call from Switzerland that night. “I’m so happy!”
Now that Koza has won the ballerina’s heart, he says his cross-country running career is over. He plans to take dance lessons.
“It’s terrific,” Koza said of the successful proposal. “It justifies everything.”