Inspirational Women interview with Nika Fleiss
Nika Fleiss is a former professional alpine skier who represented Croatia at the winter Olympic games three times. Alpine skiing has been Nika’s life since early childhood but after retiring at 25, she embarked on a new journey as a media and marketing consultant, TV host and advocate for women’s health.
Nika is now an ambassador for Wings For Life and is part of the Beach Volleyball Major Series championships organization team. We met with her at a pilates studio in Zagreb where she regularly practices. Healthy lifestyle and personal care have become a major part of Nika’s life after a successful career in professional sports. She now utilizes her career in marketing and media to inspire others to do the same.
I was intrigued by Nika and wanted to talk to her, not just because she’s actually one of our oldest customers (she’s been wearing her Leaf Nature which she recently replaced with Leaf Urban, since 2015) but because she had such an interesting career path and life journey. As a former professional athlete she had to invest so much of her life to sport -- having to reinvent herself in a new career at an age when people are usually, just starting to find their passion. Along with completely changing her career path, she had to completely change her lifestyle and habits, and center them around creating body, mind and soul balance.
I believe that her path demanded not just maintaining a healthy body but also extreme strength and focus which makes people like Nika stand out as a positive role model. That said, Nika is definitely a woman that should inspire us all in always preserving, always keeping positive and ultimately coming out on top.
1. Nika, you’re a successful former professional athlete turned marketing expert, TV host and ambassador for healthy living. Can you tell us a bit more about your interesting career path and current projects?
I was a professional alpine skier until 2010 when I decided to quit my career and start something new. So far, I have competed at 3 Olympic games and worked at another two (Sochi and Rio). It's hard to say how it all started, since the only thing I really remember from childhood was skiing. I would often say, back then I thought everyone was skiing -- it felt so normal that they would. By the time I turned professional, at the age of 15, skiing was the only thing I knew, so for me to decide which way to go was actually really easy and natural. I turned to snow; to the competitions and my dream to, one day, ski at the Olympics. And in the end that dream did come true, 3 times even. I met wonderful people on the way, learned a lot, traveled a lot, cried, laughed, celebrated… and I would do it all over again. I have not one regret. It was my way. The harder way for sure, but it made me who I am today. Strong and independent; a hard worker, a believer and still, a dreamer of a better tomorrow. Sport has something which no other thing has -- it teaches you to never give up, never. That is my strongest weapon to this day. No matter what, I won't accept that things can't be done. If there is a will, there is a way.
After I finished studying at VERN college(PR and journalism), I started working for the Croatian Ski Association as the Head of Communications and Marketing. During my study I was a temporary worker for HRT, as the expert commentator for alpine skiing. I did this for 5 seasons. At that time, I was also involved with a different sport organizations and events in Croatia like Hanzekovicev Memorijal, Croatia rally, different sport conferences… During that time I became an ambassador for the Wings for Life Run, it's the world largest marathon run where we run for those who can ́t and the money goes to the Wings for Life spinal research foundation. I often like to say that this is my favorite race, along with all the world championships and Olympic games.
At the end of 2015, I decided to open my own PR and marketing agency, PR kliNika. I started as a one man band with only one co-worker. Our first project was Porec Major, the highest level of the beach volleyball competition in the world at that moment. We took care of the national PR and communication for the event, plus I did some sponsoring and VIP hospitality. The event was a great success and right after I got asked from the event and the company director to come work for him. And that is how everything started. Then, at the end of 2016, I start working for the Austrian company called Beach Majors Company (joint venture with Red Bull) as the Head of International Communications and Marketing. Because of that role I had to move to Austria (Vienna) where our main office is located. After that, I was mainly on the road between Vienna, Salzburg (RB headquarters), Klagenfurt (our second office) and Samobor (home). In 2017, my boss asked me to move with him and 4 other colleagues to Fort Lauderdale (Miami) where we had opened our US office and had spent the last 16 month living. Now I ́m back in Europe and again, driving between Austria and Croatia.
2. As a professional athlete that competed in the Olympics 3 times, you obviously spent the majority of your young life committed to the sport. Since early childhood you were dedicated to your sports career, until it came to a full-stop at the young age of 25. It must’ve been a drastic change that required some adjustments. How did you deal with the change and reinvent yourself in a new career path?
Well to be honest, I think the hardest part was the time directly after I had to quit skiing. My life had changed by 360 degrees. At the same time I had started a new relationship, so things had turned out well enough because it occupied most of my time and attention… But I still figured out that I had to do something because my days were just too long and without any real meaning. I didn ́t feel productive anymore.
My ex-boyfriend was running a successful business in Porec; a ski lift with a bar and fast food, as well as a small bar in the city of Porec. He gave me the chance to be part of his crew, where I learned a lot about new things, met new people and felt how it was to live a “normal life”. Also during that time I had the idea of having my own ski school academy which I started with the Slovenian ski Legend Boris Strel in Krvavec (Slovenia), who sadly, after our first season had killed himself. Until this day I still don't really understand why I never continued working on that, but I pulled out of the project. My mum took over the ski school and she is still taking care of it during our winter school holidays. This year was the first year I visited her in Saalbach and helped her, having my own group of kids and teaching them skiing. I enjoyed it.
Basically, studying was my main occupation after I quit skiing. This helped me a lot to came back to my rhythm of having some kind of an obligation on a daily basis. Some kind of a competition as well, I wanted to be the best student. And I did it on my very first year. I got the rector award :)
I enjoyed being an everyday student a lot. I felt like life had meaning again after skiing. Fighting to be the best, to learn something new, to learn more and to use that knowledge on my next projects.
The hardest part at that time was to find myself again. My meaning in life and who I really am without skis or without being a skier… My self-confidence was really at an all-time low because I didn't know anything about the basic stuff, like daily routines in the community… All of a sudden there's no team of people taking care of you, so I had to do it myself. It's a special life we live being professional athletes.
I’m still learning how to put myself first. I ́m a giver. I need to see that everyone around me is fine and taken care of. I’m learning about self-love and self-care. It’s the hardest lesson so far.
I’m still learning how to put myself first. I ́m a giver. I need to see that everyone around me is fine and taken care of.I’m learning about self-love and self-care. It’s the hardest lesson so far.
3. Being a professional athlete must’ve been extremely hard. All the training, the pressure, the injuries… I’m sure it was both physically and mentally draining. As a professional athlete how did you experience the connection between body and mind? How much did you pay attention to this back then?
Looking at all that today, and being far from it, I must say it was extremely hard. Everyday pain reminds me on that. All those injuries, the pain you go through -- not only the physical but mental ones as well. Fears, expectations… you enter the world of adults at a young age where you have to be fully responsible for yourself. You have to deal with the public, media, their expectations, sponsor expectations, manager expectations… and there you are, at the end of the day, laying alone in your bed with all your pain, fears and no one to talk to. Well, not no one because I have no one, of course family was always here to support me no matter what, friends, colleagues, but still, at that moment it's only you and your thoughts -- and no one can help you there… it's either you win or you lose and i’s about how you will handle that.
Back then 20 years ago attention was most of the time on the physical and our bodies, how to train them best to be a machine, to be able to get through the season alive and without injuries. The mental part was left behind, big time...and to me, that was the missing link. I had a hard time competing on the highest level because I didn't know how to deal with my own expectations. I was my biggest enemy there. Training was a different story, this was my playground… but on the day of the race something had always changed and I blocked myself. I was always admiring Janica for her mental strength and how easy it was for her to compete. It was just the opposite with her. She could not make herself train with a 100%, but on the day of the race she turned into the strongest machine I had ever seen so far -- impressive!
If I could choose today, I would train less but be smarter about it and I would train my head more. It would be a different story, but as I said, this was my way, the hard way...
4. You told me that things are much different now, considering how training professional athletes is approached. You mentioned that if you trained now, you would’ve done things differently. How so?
That biggest shift that we can see nowadays is the increasingly individual approach to everything in professional athlete training. Athletes have their own private mentors and coaches, outside the big groups, teams, and clubs. I believe this is because it has become clear that we are all different, and therefore the way each of us approaches training must be different.
You can build up the strongest body in the world, but if the athlete doesn’t know how to use that body it's all for nothing...and more and more I listen to some other athletes, and they all say the same -- sometimes less is more. What that means is, quality over quantity… free your brain and your body will follow. I believe in that.
There is no successful athlete without hard training, extremely hard training, you can forget being successful… but it can be set up differently, more focused on what the athletes truly need; to listen to their feedback instead of just drill, drill, drilling just because someone said so. Sometimes a day off is more efficient than 5 days of training. 100%
Sometimes we need to let our head and body be hungry for training and competitions, not fed up...
5.You’re very passionate about women’s health and spreading awareness of health issues that affect women. The fact is that while about 80% of women will contract HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer, at some point in their lives, there’s still much to be done to raise awareness on this and other conditions that affect women. Girls and women should have unbiased and unobstructed access to information in order to gain knowledge necessary to practice safe sex and lead a healthy life. What do you feel are the biggest obstacles women currently face on their journey to well-being and what can be done to change that?
We all mostly start being passionate about something once we find ourselves in the middle of it. And then, all of a sudden, you hear so many stories… unfortunately, the vast majority of them behind closed doors. Your doctor is the first one who will tell you: you´re not alone, 80% of your classmates are dealing with the same problem; it´s OK. But let me tell you: it's not OK. Everyone is too quiet about it, and no one is talking. It´s not only about girls and women having unbiased and unobstructed access to information in order to gain knowledge about safe sex -- it must start with our parents, our brothers, our teachers in the elementary school...it´s an illness that women experience, but men are diretly involved so they need to hear it, too. They need to understand what it does to us and to them as well.
6.Like many women who are currently living with HPV, you suffer from health complications related to the virus -- but you’re one of the few that is prepared to speak about it openly which, all by itself, makes you quite an inspirational woman. What does living with a chronic condition mean? Does practicing self-care and managing your lifestyle play a role in managing your condition?
The biggest reason I´m prepared to talk about it is because I found myself in a situation where I needed help and I had no one to talk to about it, except for my doctor. I got diagnosed with HPV in October 2005, with the CIN III condition. My doctor at the time told me that it's nothing major -- it's only a precancerous condition (cervix carcinoma in situ)! He was so easy-going about it and told me; we will do the LLETZ procedure and you will be fine. Recovery is fast, in 2 weeks you will be back on your skis, and everything will be back to normal. Except -- it wasn’t. It was 4 months before my second Olympic games in Torino. I did the procedure, but the HPV virus never went away till this day. I am still fighting it to this day.
Living with a chronic condition for over 14 years means that you wake up with that and you go to bed with that. I remember how ashamed I was when I found out I got the virus. And I got it being in a relationship… what I want to say is, don't be afraid or ashamed to talk to your parents, and especially your partners. Your partner is the first one who can help you, alongside yourself, of course. Practicing safe sex is nothing to be ashamed of; you´re not ‘less cool’ if you ask your partner for it. It just shows you are educated and taking care of yourself, and them as well.
7. Even in your new career as a marketing expert working with big brands such as RedBull and being a TV host, you’re still very much in the public eye. How important is work-life balance for you and how do you make sure to get enough time just for yourself?
I guess this is still the only thing I didn't manage to find a balance for. I work. And then I work. And then in between work I try to manage everything else. Friends, love life, family, health… it ́s the thing I failed at the most. I’m still learning how to put myself first. I ́m a giver. I need to see that everyone around me is fine and taken care of… So that is something I ́m doing at the moment -- learning about self-love and self-care. It's the hardest lesson so far.
8. Could you share some beauty and wellness routines you do in your daily life?
The best thing I ́ve learned about healthy routines was from my dogs and this is it: first thing when you open your eyes is stretch yourself in bed. Then do it when you step on your feet, and then have a glass of water.
This is something I do every day. I ́m not really into the standard beauty routines, because I believe that beauty comes from within. After I take my morning shower I just put basic blue NIVEA cream on my face and the same body milk. Black mascara and labello on my lips. I think mornings are the most important for our mental health and this is where I like to have my time, enough time. One of the reasons I like to wake up early is that I don't have to rush in the morning. And the best thing I discovered lately is my pilates teacher and a friend, Ersi. Practicing with her twice a week keeps me out of pain. God bless her! I wish I knew her when I was still active in skiing.. I would have avoided 50% of my injuries.
9. I only found this out recently, but you’re actually one of our first customers ever! You’ve worn Leaf Nature since it’s launch in 2015 and now you have a new Leaf Urban. How did you find out about Bellabeat and how did Leaf help you on your personal journey?
Indeed, I really did. I even remember the day when I saw the online ad and I was like; wow, that's cool piece of something. It was a few days before my birthday so I decided to treat myself with it. It was even more beautiful than on pictures. And I remember being asked about it a lot: where did you buy it, what is it, how does it work… and then when Urban came out I just had to do what girls do :)
I’m using Leaf to make sure my menstrual cycles are in the balance, that's the first thing. Then, to make sure I drink water and walk enough. The last thing is that it looks good -- the first thing is that it helps me take better care of myself when I forget.
10. How do you see your life changing in the next 10 years, what would you still like to achieve? How much do you think about your health and well-being when planning for the future?
I ‘d like to be a mom one day and have my own family. That's something I would be really proud of. Other than that, I would love to write a book about being a professional female athlete and everything that goes with it. Even if it inspires only one human in any way, I will be so happy.
I don't plan much, because I believe life happens when we don't plan it. I strive to do the best I can in any field I take up on; I always strive to be a better human, and pray that good will come back to me.
I believe that there is a plan for each of us, and I want to do my best and enjoy the path that I’́ve been given.