This week marks my one-year anniversary of packing up my bags and leaving Stanford, moving closer to the mountains, and committing to the life of a full time athlete. Last year at this time I was scared, wondering if we made the right choice. Looking back, the answer to that is simple – this year has probably been the best year of my life. Despite the ups and downs and a big mid season injury, I finally feel I’m where I belong, living a life I always dreamt of having.

A perfect life does not have to be *your* perfect life

Rea Kolbl Taking Risks

Leaving graduate school at Stanford was hard because at that time it already felt like I had everything anyone could wish for. I just finished my master’s degree, on track to a PhD, doing well and liking the big picture of my research. I was the master of my own schedule; I could travel for races, run in daylight, and spend most of my weekends with my husband, Bunsak. I know being a PhD student at Stanford is a dream of many, and I felt guilty leaving that behind. But I wasn’t happy.

When I was out running or spending time with Bunsak, I felt guilty for not doing more in the lab; when I was in the lab I wished I was outside on trails instead. I felt like I was juggling both the athlete life and the student life, but just barely, always toeing the line of not-enough in both. Not sleeping quite enough, not training quite enough, not recovering quite enough, and not working quite enough. As someone who wants to do their best in everything, this barely-but-maybe-not enough made me unhappy and stressed.

Leaving Stanford was hard because once you’re on a certain life path, stepping off into unknown is harder than just accepting the negatives. But at some point I had to admit that just because my life was great, it wasn’t great for me. OCR gave me a chance to do something different – less conventional, certainly less stable, but something that felt the right thing to do; not traditionally, not for everyone, but for me.

Sometimes it’s okay to risk everything

Rea Kolbl Taking RisksAlas, last December we left behind a steady income and hoped for the best. We had enough savings to be safe for a couple of years no matter what and I was lucky enough to leave without student debt, so taking a chance on the “funemployed” life was a little less risky, all things considered. Still, I was worried it was a mistake to put all of my eggs in one basket – something I’ve done once already and promised to never repeat. By now many of you know of my gymnastics background, and after losing everything when that career ended I decided to live a bit more balanced life, to always have at least two things I love equally in case one falls through. Dropping everything for OCR seemed just the opposite. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that I already had two things I loved – Bunsak and running, and taking a chance on OCR was easier knowing that no matter what, Bunsak will stay.

Losing gymnastics when I was young felt like the end of the world, but it was also a lesson that you can build yourself up again from scratch with the right support; that success isn’t defined by winning until you die; and that very few things last forever. Taking big risks and going all in, be it in sports, your dream job, or personal relationships is scary because you leave yourself so vulnerable to getting hurt. But I think if you redefine the success in terms of temporary happiness rather than ever lasting victories, going all in is suddenly a lot less scary and a lot more likely to work out.


Experience matters

Looking back, I know I am where I am right now precisely because I took big risks in the past. More importantly, before I could even decide which pair of jeans to wear my mom taught me the value of following your dreams, and that at the end of the day the only thing you risk is money, which in most cases you can make more of.

Rea Kolbl Taking RisksFor college, I wanted to go to the United States, which made no sense to my peers in Slovenia where college is free. But I wasn’t happy where I was at the time, and I needed a change. My parents didn’t have enough money to pay for my tuition and life expenses, not even for a year, let alone to finish my degree. I was a finalist for a scholarship that would solve this problem, but the results of that wouldn’t be announced until October; school started in August. So my mom told me to go regardless – if in October I land the scholarship I get to stay; if not, I get the experience of a semester abroad. I got a scholarship; later I met Bunsak, beat eating disorders, found trail running, and eventually fell in love with OCR.

I don’t think I’d ever have enough courage to take the risk of an athlete life if it weren’t for all my past experiences where things worked out. Of course sometimes I made the wrong decisions, but those situations eventually worked out as well. I’m glad I grew up in an environment that encouraged me to take big risks, define what is most important to me, and what happiness and success looks like.

Happiness IS worth it. Always

A year later, was our big risk worth it? This year wasn’t perfect. I had a big injury smack in the middle of the season, something I feared most when I quit my job a year ago. But being a full time athlete gave me time to deal with it; to cross train to my brain’s delight, to spend time on recovery, to keep my foot up in the air when it didn’t need to do work. And it worked out – even during the worst case scenario, I’ve been happier than ever before.

I loved almost every minute of this past year. Hours spent in the mountains, evenings in the gym, weekends traveling. I have time to sleep enough, time to recover. I no longer need every workout to smash me into oblivion to be happy because I don’t rely just on endorphins for happiness.

Thanks to my sponsors, I now have some guaranteed income, even if I get injured or don’t win as many races. It’s not as high of a salary as what I would get with my three technical degrees, but when you love the life on trails you don’t need much. My pay comes in the happiness of being able to be outside, train hard, and see how far I can get with OCR if I really give it everything I have.

I know this isn’t forever, but when you redefine success in terms of happiness, even if this whole thing ends tomorrow, taking a chance was worth it. In the future, when I look back to my OCR career, I will know I did everything I could to be the best I could be. When you look at it that way, the questions of how many wins and how many years become irrelevant.

Rea Kolbl Taking Risks


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