I started running track when I was 6 years old and initially, nobody wanted to coach me stating I was too young to do anything with. But one of the coaches decided to include me in his group with significantly older athletes, and that is how my journey started. Coming from an athletic family, mom, who was a swimmer and dad, who was a triple jumper, it was almost expected that both myself and my brother would be involved in sports.
I fell in love with track and in the beginning, I long jumped and ran hurdles. But as I grew older, I decided to focus on hurdles entirely. At the age of 14 in 2003 I ran the fastest time in the world in 100m Hurdles – 13.68 for the 14-year-olds, that record stood for 11 years. I competed at 4 World Youth and Junior Championships, in 2003 in Sherbrooke, Canada; 2004 in Grosseto, Italy; 2005 in Marrakech, Morocco, where I finished 5th; and my last one was in Beijing, China in 2006, where I broke Croatian Junior National Record. I also competed at five European Championships. Needless to say, my dream and goal was to make it to the Olympics.
All throughout high school I worked with a sport psychologist in Croatia, partly to help with my athletic performance, and partly because I was battling an eating disorder. She was of tremendous importance for my development; not only as an athlete but also as a person. I always looked forward to my weekly meetings with her. It would be an hour of pure freedom, where I knew I would not be judged no matter what I said or did, I knew that what I said to her would not be shared with anyone else and my most private thoughts would be safe. We utilized a lot of visualization and guided imagery to work on relaxation, but also to fix my technical mistakes in my hurdling and to overcome some mental blocks I experienced over the years. What she has done with me, was so prevalent to me at that time, that it was then- at the age 15 when I decided I want to be to others what she has been to me. I want to be a sport counselor and help other athletes, young or old, amateur or professional, football, soccer, tennis, swimming, or any other sport it does not matter. I want to provide them with a safe place, where they can express themselves freely, without fear of judgement, without fear that the information shared will “leak” elsewhere. I want to provide them with support as they work through their obstacles and let them know they are not alone, that it is normal to feel whatever it is that they are feeling and/or experiencing and that we can work through it together! I want to be the companion on their journey to healing, freedom, improvement, to steer them, guide them, provide another point of view and equip them with skills and coping tools to better perform not just on their athletic field, but also in life! That is my purpose and mission.
Due to my successful Junior years, my results, and my performance, I was recruited by several Universities in the US. I didn’t know much about the US education system or the athletic concept. I talked with other Croatian athletes who came to the US on athletic scholarships, and I ended up choosing Nebraska because it seemed like they had a history of athletic success. They have great facilities, things I could only dream of in Croatia. I also wanted to study psychology and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had one of the oldest Psychology departments in the country. At the time I did not know that in order to practice I had to have at least a Master’s degree.
I came to UNL in August 2007. I was excited and ready to tackle new challenges. I never had problems in academics, so I didn’t expect any issues to arise. I did doubt my English a bit, and during the first semester, I used a dictionary quite a bit, which ultimately helped me develop my vocabulary tremendously. The not so fun part is that I instantly started gaining weight. My friends who came to the US warned me about it, which was the main reason I started working with a nutritionist as soon as I got there. I came in at 135lbs and by end of November, beginning of December I weighed 155lbs. I was devastated, I thought that if I do everything right I will avoid that. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned, and it took me another 6-7 months to lose that weight and get back down to 135ish. I believe that was part of adjusting to different food and different ways of preparing the food here in the US. Throughout my college years, I struggled a lot with adapting to different training and weight lifting regime. Before coming to Nebraska, I trained like a professional, twice a day, sometimes more, especially when we would go to training camps. So, sometimes I thought I wasn’t training enough, even more so after my Freshman and Sophomore year, when my results and performance significantly declined. My Junior year, I trained on my own in addition to training with the team, and I finally ran a personal best, after being stagnant for a few years. At the time, all I wanted was to run fast, score points, and make it to the Olympics. All I did was attend my classes, study, train, and sleep. One of my regrets now is that I didn’t socialize more with my peers and teammates, made more friends, and invested more into developing meaningful relationships with people.
Overall, I believe we all learn from all of our experiences, both good and bad. Now, when I reflect on my years at Nebraska, I realize that I have a bond with my former teammates and even with athletes who went there after me. We all worked hard, dedicated our lives to being a student-athlete for 4+/- years, gave back to the community, and tried to make an impact on the next generation.
I learned teamwork is important and having a team of people in your corner to support you, challenge you, push you out of your comfort zone, call you out when you’re being unreasonable, or just simply to listen to you, is essential for any personal development.
After graduating from UNL, I moved to South Carolina to train with a professional coach and get ready for 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately, things again did not go as planned. I fell over the hurdle at practice in February and broke my ankle, which I didn’t realize was broken until I came to Croatia in June and had an MRI. I ran my season with a broken ankle because I could bear the pain and Doctor told me if I can handle it I can run until after the Olympics and we can schedule surgery afterwards. So, I did. I ran in hopes of running the standard to make it to Olympics, because I could not accept the fact that I would miss yet another Olympic games and that all the hard work I have been putting in for years will be in vain.
Since I moved to South Carolina in 2012, I started volunteering as an assistant track and field coach at a private school in Columbia, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. I was coaching hurdles and horizontal jumps until the summer of 2018. My girls won the State Championship back to back in 2017 and 2018. To be able to pass on my knowledge to a younger generation of athletes who may or may not go to college to run track was something very rewarding in itself. To provide them with feedback and then to watch them apply it and continuously work on it, and then improve their performance week after week was wonderful and I am so thankful to the head coach, Willis Ware, who entrusted me with such a task and who would ask me year after year to come back and to help him coach the girls team.
The year after (2013) I got back into school to pursue Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which would allow me to do what I wanted to do in the first place. I wanted to stay in the US and one of the ways to do so was to get back into school. Unfortunately, the school did not have any graduate assistantships available nor did I qualify for financial aid because I am not a US citizen; I was forced to finance myself through graduate school. I worked 16-hour days, seven days a week for three and a half years and paid cash for my Master’s degree. I consider that one of my biggest accomplishments yet. I do not think I would have been able to do that if sport didn’t teach me about delayed gratification early on. Fast forward several years, lots of sweat, blood, and tears, doubts and wanting to give up, I have started my own counseling company called Hurdling Through Life, LLC in January 2018. I thought Hurdling Through Life was an appropriate name because it encompasses not only my hurdling on the track, but also hurdling over all of the unexpected obstacles life threw at me. Life is unpredictable, an athletic career is unpredictable, and my desire is to serve the athletic population, regardless of how big or small one’s goals are. I aim to help every client I encounter through an individualized approach. One shoe doesn’t fit all and therefore, every client will not respond to the same approach. I pride myself on being multiculturally aware and meeting each of my clients where he or she is, and then helping him or her grow from there. I provide services in English, Spanish and Croatian, and so far I am licensed in the states of South Carolina and North Carolina. I am continually learning, reading, and researching in order to improve myself and my services.
Being an international student is hard, having to deal with all the rules and regulations, do’s and dont’s and how to get around them is stressful. Adjusting to a new culture can be very challenging at times. Learning the terminology and being able to understand when people joke was most difficult for me.
In February of 2018, a book I collaborated on with 15 other women was published, titled “Walking in My Destiny: Driven by Faith”. The fifteen of us came together and shared our own stories to inspire and encourage other women and men. The proceeds of the book sales are used to fund youth enrollment into summer and afterschool programs nationwide. I have shared my journey of being a student athlete, my struggles to make it through graduate school, and my battle of changing identities from student-athlete to professional athlete, to student, and to young professional in the field of counseling.
Just last month, the second book was published titled “Break the Silence: No More Tears”. And in this project again, fifteen women came together and shared their stories. This time the topic was youth sexual abuse and assault. Our goal with this book is to raise the awareness of youth sexual abuse around the US and the world. These women shared their own personal stories and experiences and how they overcame that traumatic experience. I have shared information from a counselor’s perspective, how sexual assault impacts youth in their development, who are the most common perpetrators, where it most commonly occurs, and what are the long-term consequences. Both books are available on amazon.com and more information about the projects can be found on www.againirise.org.
In May of this year, I have commenced my doctoral journey at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I am pursuing a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision. I am looking forward to conducting research specific to the student-athlete population, continuing to provide counseling services in my private practice, and engage in many more projects along the way!
It makes my heart so joyful when I see my clients make progress after our sessions. I often tell my clients and my athletes that sometimes “heavier is lighter”. And what I mean by that is that sometimes we think we are at the end of the rope and the burden is too heavy, but if you just hold on a little longer and a little tighter, it will all be worth it and the pain you endured wasn’t so bad after all. In training, I would often be puzzled by myself- I loved lifting weights, but sometimes I would think I have hit the ceiling, yet would add another 5 or 10 pounds and perform the exercise as if the weight was lighter than before when there was less weight on the bar. I started to apply that approach to everything I did and soon found to make progress more quickly and with greater strides than before. It kept pushing me forward and I would often test myself…
Well, if squatting 250 was hard, let me try 260, it may actually be lighter.
… and more often than not, that approach worked!
So, I shall leave you with this- struggle is part of the story and remember that sometimes, heavier may actually be lighter!