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Earning Our Stars and Stripes

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

In the past I’ve talked about the pride of being an American walking into the Opening Ceremonies at an Olympic Games. I explained how I was caught up in the hype of the cameras and fanfare until I saw all the athletes decked out in their countries’ colors, and many were waving their national flags. I looked around my own group and saw all the American flags, American colors and American athletes. All of a sudden the cameras no longer mattered, and I burst into tears.

The commitment I had made to get to the games was no longer just about me; now it was about my country. I recognized how fortunate I was to live in a nation that allowed me to work toward my goals. I lived in the land of opportunity, and I had pushed myself to take advantage of that opportunity.

Sometimes we forget how lucky we are to be able to work toward our dreams. I know one good friend who has never taken that for granted. I couldn’t think of a better story to share following Independence Day than one from this successful Hollywood Cinematographer.

George Koblasa’s Story
(Cowritten by Nikki Stone for When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out)

It’s hard to truly understand how unbelievable it is to be free unless you have experienced life without freedom. Growing up in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, I experienced those overbearing restraints. There was constant control in nearly every aspect of my life, and endless days when I felt like a caged animal.

My dream was to escape to Hollywood to pursue my passion of cinematography. But greater than that wish was my desire for freedom. To live free! It was the first thought I had in the morning and the last thought I had at night. I was determined to break the chains that were holding me to my native country.

It wasn’t going to be easy. With every action I took, I was always thinking of how I could escape. But behind every corner were the Secret Police, waiting to knock me back down. I was even arrested and interrogated about my friendship with a man from the American Embassy. It seemed the Secret Police were onto me, and it was impossible to trust anyone. They wanted to break my hard outer shell, but it was my commitment to reaching America, the golden land of opportunity, that helped keep my shell intact. I reminded myself that there is always a way of reaching your goals; you just can’t take “no” for an answer.

I finally saw my best prospect to escape in 1958, when I was granted permission for a tour around the Balkan States. The Secret Police were escorting us from country to country and watching our every move. I was determined that, if I was going to find my freedom, I had to escape now.

As we boarded a ship bound for Greece, I scoped out my possibilities and started to put into place the plans I had dreamed of for so many years. First, I found a waterproof bag for my camera. Then, knowing the water would be brutally cold, I pulled as many clothes from my tattered suitcase as I could, and proceeded to cover myself with layer upon layer. A couple hours into the cruise, I found myself alone on the ship’s outer deck, and leaped over the railing into the frigid sea.

The layers of clothes that had been intended to save me quickly absorbed water and started weighing me down. I struggled to stay afloat, barely keeping my head above water. After ten minutes of floundering in the icy saltwater, my arms and legs became weak. I knew I needed my commitment to that hard shell more than ever before. If I could just keep afloat for one more minute, I might be saved, for there was a boat coming my way. I could smell that freedom I had always dreamed about.

The boat crept closer and closer, and I willed every muscle in my body to keep paddling. Then fear suddenly swept over me. What if it was actually the Secret Police, circling back to catch me? I couldn’t decide if it would be worse to drown or face the consequences of my criminal actions. I decided I wouldn’t surrender in any case.

The boat pulled beside me and I was quickly fished out of the water. I was ecstatic to find myself standing face-to-face with a Greek Coast Guard crew. They took me to the safety of their offices. As I sat in the cramped headquarters, I was offered my first-ever Coca-Cola. I have never savored anything that tasted so much like freedom.

At my request, I was given asylum in Greece. For fifteen months I was holed up in a refugee camp, living on less than a dollar per day. But I never gave up hope that someday I would be given a visa to enter the United States. After months of waiting, I finally received word that I was granted permanent residence in the U.S., and I boarded the ship Transylvania for my journey across the Atlantic. I can still vividly recall the lights of New York City and the majestic beauty of the Statue of Liberty as we approached the shores around 2:00 a.m. I couldn’t take my eyes off this icon of freedom. I stood on the bow of that ship until daylight, staring at the magnificent statue, knowing this was my new home.

I was finally seeing freedom.

My journey did not end there, but my doubts did. I knew that, if my determination could help me find my sovereignty, it could unquestionably help me find my career. I was on my way to Hollywood…with my camera, my Coca-Cola and my newfound freedom.

********** Motivational Weight Management Tip **********

I’ve had the great honor of working with some of the Biggest Loser contestants and it has inspired me to leave motivational diet, health, and wellness tips at the end of all of my blogs. These tools have been driven from actual advice I’ve shared. This week's tip: There is a great quote by Allard Lowenstein that states, “The question should be, is it worth trying to do, not can it be done.” Repeat this every morning when you wake up. We all know that health and wellness ARE worth it, so don’t give up!


At the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, Nikki Stone became America’s first-ever Olympic Champion in the sport of aerial skiing. What made this performance so unbelievable, was the fact that less than two years earlier, a chronic spinal injury prevented her from standing, much less walking or skiing off an aerial jump. Nikki’s achievements have carried far beyond the slopes as she now works as an accomplished motivational speaker for national and international corporations and motivational coach for a new national Biggest Loser program. Nikki has also recently released the inspirational bestseller When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out (with contributors Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, Tommy Hilfiger, and more). For more information, please visit www.WhenTurtlesFly.com and www.NikkiStone.com.

Edited by Alison Stanton

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.