Through New Eyes, Story Nine

Through New Eyes, Story Nine

Scott Simon, Co-Founder of Thrive Cleveland

Photo Credit: Greg Murray

Photo Credit: Greg Murray

We are all on a journey, a journey that, no matter what part of the world you live in, no matter what language you speak, what religion you practice, what your sexual preference is, and what economic bracket you fall into, each and every one of us is taking the journey together, whether we are cognizant of it or not. Social barriers and norms crumble to the ground when the journey is recognized, and prejudices and discriminations are blown away like dust in the wind when the journey is acknowledged, purely because it is felt by all.

It is a journey, an expedition, that we are all familiar with but yet fail to pay tribute to on a less than daily basis. Maybe it’s because the busyness of our everyday lives seems to distract us from the true meaning of why we are keeping ourselves busy in the first place. The journey that I am speaking about, the journey that all of us share, is of happiness. We all want happiness, we seek it, reach for it, strive for it, in everything we do, but do we really know what “it” is? Do we know how to control it, do we know how to make it ownable to each of our own lives, and do we really feel like we have a say in it?

Now, I know this is a topic that I write fairly often about; in a way, you could say that it is a topic close to my heart. While it is a topic that can be talked about and written about for lifetimes on end, I choose to write about the topic of happiness simply because I have met too many people that are leading lives they do not seem to be proud of; lives that they portray as empty, as hollow, with no way of knowing how to fill that void and enrich the very thing they have been gifted with; the gift of leading an amazing life.

It’s time we change that.

Meet Scott Simon, the co-founder of Thrive Cleveland,, a new boundary-expanding happiness incubator. Incubator, you ask? No,we are not talking about raising chickens here. Rather, we are talking about raising UP people; pushing them, encouraging them, and pouring love and support within them.



Scott Simon, Co-Founder of Thrive Cleveland

Of course we are all familiar with the term “happiness”…happiness is eating our favorite ice cream on summer’s hottest day, happiness is sitting amongst family and friends and feeling that level of comfort and acceptance that we don’t feel around anyone else, happiness is jumping on an airplane to a destination we have never been to, excited to meet people we have yet to meet.  But, what does it really mean

Happiness lives at the corner of pleasure and meaning; when we feel purpose and joy in the things that we do and in the impact that we have.

Broken down, 50% of our happiness is embedded in our genes. It’s why some people always just seem to be happy, and others, maybe not so much. After our basic needs are met, only 10% of our happiness is based on those things that we would think would normally make us happy… our level of education, how much money we make, where we live, etc. That leaves 40% of our happiness owed to our thoughts and actions…things that we can control.

Thrive designs shared happiness experiences that gets people to exercise that 40%. They aim to create “Wow” memories that bring people together under the shared purpose of stimulating simple, pure,  happiness.

One look at Thrive Cleveland’s website and you will quickly realize that this is an organization that thrives on the simple high of making people happy; of pushing people to be the change they themselves have always wanted to be by unifying them with the common thread of plain, simple, happiness. 

Curious? Intrigued? Evoked?
Read Thrive Cleveland’s story, through Scott’s eyes.

1. In your own words, describe Thrive Cleveland

Within their deepest, trust selves, people’s greatest desire is very simple:  to be happy.   Thrive’s mission is to help empower people and communities to be the happiest they can be.   How you ask?  Thrive creates experiences – which are rooted in the science of positive psychology – that are designed to push our happiness buttons.   Our experiences are really compelling  – but at the same time they connect people, push boundaries, get people into “flow” and help people get healthier and more active.  In a very real way, THRIVE CREATES HAPPINESS.

2. Give us a little background on the concept of Thrive Cleveland…why it began, when it began, and who was apart of the initial concept. 

I was totally blown away when I met a professor at Harvard – Tal Ben Shahar – who had the largest class in all of Harvard:  the science of happiness.   In meeting him, I realized that happiness wasn’t about rainbows and smiley faces … Rather it is deep, important human quest which can be enhanced in scientifically ways.  That blew me away, because I was used to the who pop psychology thing (10 quick steps to self esteem).  Here was a total science of high performing, optimistic, high achieving people.  I wanted to know :  What made them tick?   And could we learn from them to make others happier?   That was the simple but powerful premise of Thrive.

3. What kinds of events does Thrive Cleveland organize?

If you came to a Thrive event, you would never know it was grounded in science.  You would just have a blast.  We do healthy noontime silent discos, mindfulness tea ceremonies, tribal drum experiences, huge gratitude murals, food experiences, random acts of kindness, and more.   One of my favorites was an event all about stress release, and we encouraged people to do yoga and then to smash plates, cups and China against a wall.   It was both hilarious and awesome simultaneously.

4. When you are brainstorming these events that are geared around happiness, what is your first overarching goal when planning such events? What do you want people to ultimately get out of the event?

Ok, so here’s the thing about happiness.  It’s a PRACTICE, not a state of being.  So what we want our events to do are to inspire people to take on happiness practices and give them the experience to know they can do it.  That is our secret sauce.

5. Out of all of the events that have been put on by Thrive, which one has impacted you most?

Our last event, which was a “pop up wedding” probably hit me the hardest.   Our theme was LOVE which is obviously a huge driver of happiness.  But sometimes people can get cynical and downright negative when it comes to love.  So we wanted to really hit home how truly powerful and inspiring true love can be. The event was pure, surprising, powerful.   It was light love lightning In a bottle.


Photo Credit: Lindsey Beckwith

Photo Credit: Lindsey Beckwith

6. There have been numerous Thrive events recently that have sold out in a matter of days. Why do you think Cleveland has responded the way it has to Thrive?

I think in Cleveland it’s all about trust.  If people know that you will give them something amazing and transformative they will follow you anywhere.

7. The people that are involved in the organization of Thrive all come from a variety of backgrounds, careers, and skill sets. What is it about Thrive that has attracted people from so many different walks of life?

Great question.  Because happiness is the great unifier.  No matter what you background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender … We all equally want and can access happiness.  That said, our Thrive crazies are a special breed.   They want to blow people’s minds just as much as they want to make people’s lives better.  They get off on making people smile.   I love that.

8. Why do you think Cleveland needs an organization like Thrive Cleveland?

Honestly, I think EVERY city needs a Thrive.  Every company needs to be touched by Thrive.  Every family needs to learn from Thrive.   But Cleveland has been an incredible launching pad for us.  It is home for us, and Cleveland has a great history of civic pride and activism.  We love our city with a passion.  And if there are people who want to make it better, we support them.  That’s just how we roll here.

9. In your own opinion, what do you think is the number one factor in people not reaching complete and utter happiness?

Believing that external things – money, a new car, a promotion at work, keeping up with the Joneses – will solve our problems and make us happy.    Society reinforces this every day – every second.  “Just buy our product, and you will have love, happiness, self esteem.”  But that is a load of CRAP.  the inverse is true – happiness comes from the inside out – the work we put in to be healthy, giving, optimistic, compassionate, adventurous, courageous.

10. Along the same lines, when asking people what makes them happy, what is the number one response?

That’s easy:   the relationships they have with family and friends.  That’s why being happier is so powerful – because when we get happier those we love get happier too. It’s proven.  So it multiplies and multiplies  the impact.  That’s why we are bizarre enough at Thrive to think we can change the world.

11. What has been the most thought-provoking response?

I love the concept of the beautiful  ANTICIPATION  we feel when waiting to give a gift to someone we care about,   Sure, it’s awesome to receive gifts on our birthday … But when you buy or make an awesome gift for someone and you are quietly waiting to give it to them:   That is a BEAUTIFUL human space to inhabit. We totally underestimate the happy power of giving to others.

12. There is a documentary on Netflix (and is actually my favorite as well) that is titled “Happy”. It tells us the story of how people across the world define happiness and what it means to them. What does happiness mean to you?

Well, that is my favorite movie as well.  It so clearly explains what we do at thrive. But to be specific, we view happiness as the intersection between meaning and pleasure.  It has both short term, joyful qualities, and long-term meaning qualities.  When you can nail both, you are in the zone.

13. Ten years from now, where do you hope to see Thrive Cleveland?

Honestly, I believe there  will be a thrive in every major city, and we will be connecting people and communities to happiness in all kinds of ways that we can’t even conceptualize now.  I also think we can revolutionize the way workplaces operate, focusing much more on the happiness and engagement of employees instead of just focusing on productivity and profit.  The skies the limit, and I can’t wait to see our role in it.

“We design experiences that spread happiness. We inform our design with the “science of happiness.” Thrive experiences create the optimal conditions for people to be their happiest, together.”

Dia de Noquis (Day of Gnocchi) Photo Credit: Kimberly Shuck Cowan

Dia de Noquis (Day of Gnocchi)
Photo Credit: Kimberly Shuck Cowan


For more information on Thrive Cleveland, check out their website:




Through New Eyes, Story Eight

Sarah and Luca in Switzerland

Sarah and Luca in Switzerland

A good friend once told me, “There are two kinds of soul mates in this world; the first—those people that you are meant to share every experience of your life with, the people that are the only ones in the universe who understand the way you see and understand the things around you, who grasp and fully comprehend your hopes, dreams, fears, and who will hold your hand as you discover the true soul within yourself. The purpose of these soul mates is to be your rock, to be the person when times get tough and reality hurts, to be there for it all.

The second kind of soul mate is someone who comes into your life at the most perfect, appropriate, impeccable time, exactly when their help is most needed. We hardly realize it, having no inkling or pre-notion of how these people will truly affect us, but knowing that they are in our lives for a reason, however unknown to us. These are the people that have come and gone in our lives, who have left as quickly as they entered, leaving us with just a memory of how they helped us through. The purpose of these soul mates is to help us deal with life’s struggles at that precise moment, and then when their help is no longer needed, they slowly slip away, knowing that their work is done.”

When she was done explaining these two definitions of “soul mates” to me, everything seemed to get more clear, things started to make sense. I recounted in my own life when people came into my life right when I needed them most, and people who taught me things about life beyond my wildest dreams. But then, of course, her words had me thinking:

Can the same person be both kinds of soul mates? Can one person be the life-long rock that we all hope and search for, while still coming into our lives at just the right moment? Timing is everything in life, so can both definitions of a “soul mate” actually define one singular person?

The answer? Undoubtedly, Yes.

In my next installment of Through New Eyes, the story is a moving and breathtaking testament of how two people came into each other’s lives at a time when simply fate can be the only thing to lay fault on. These people were unknowing of where their relationship would lead or what would come about from it, and now years later, it has become a grand and spectacular love story that will have you saying, Cinderalla Who? And it is my great pleasure to say that this is one of my very best friends!

Sarah grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, went to school in St. Augustine, Florida, and in her junior year of college, met an Italian solider, Luca, who was fighting in Afghanistan at the time. They began a light-hearted correspondence which quickly turned into something much more, but after only a few months of communicating, Luca was shot by a terrorist on his base camp. With that, the story of Luca and Sarah began a new chapter…

Now, without further delay, here is Sarah’s story, through her eyes.

How did you first meet Luca?
I first met Luca November 1, 2010 but when I say “met” I mean I started to talk to him. It was the day I opened my Facebook to see a message from someone I never heard of. At this point Luca was in Afghanistan because he is an Italian soldier. I thought to myself what is an Italian soldier doing writing a letter to me. Further reading his inbox message to me I understood we had a mutual friend. He was stationed where there were also American soldiers stationed and he became close friends to one of my friend’s brother. Luca was looking at pictures the American soldier had and he came across a picture of me and his sister (my friend). Luca says he looked at me in the picture and just knew right there he had to get to know me. Thus he wrote the inbox message to me. I am one of those people very weary and skeptical about “meeting people via internet” but there was something telling me, let’s say intuition, that I just had to get to know him too. Having a mutual friend made it seem ok. From that point on we started writing to each other. Started off maybe once a week and before long it was EVERYDAY! Then we started using all technology to talk to each other. Imagine, him being in Afghanistan and me studying in the USA was not easy to communicate, but we did and we did it everyday using the cell phone, text messages, Facebook, and Skype. We were drawn to each other and would do everything in our power to talk to each other. If I had to get up at 3 in the morning I did. Plus i had to hear from him too because he was in the middle of a war and hearing from him kept my mind at rest that he was safe and okay.

After you first started talking to Luca, did you think anything would come out of the relationship, or were you thinking that it was more just fun to talk to someone new?
In the beginning, I am not going to lie, I was a little weary of it all but because we had a mutual friend and because I found it so easy to talk to him, I had to get to know him. I really am not one to just open up to the first person I meet, but talking to him made me happy. Talking to him made me understand myself better. Clearly in the beginning I did some Facebook creeping and looked through his pictures and thought this guy is really handsome, he is really funny and smart. It was also interesting to talk to someone who doesn’t even live in the same country and whose first language is not English. We were learning about each other. The more I learned about him the more I hoped something would come out of the relationship. As time went on, and when I say time I mean a relatively short amount of time, I realized I was developing feelings for him. I realized I cared for him. I just knew he was becoming a really special and important person in my life. I can’t really say the specific moment I knew this but the thought of not being able to talk to him or having him in my life scared me, and I couldn’t even let myself think it. The idea was frightening enough.

Since he spoke Italian knowing hardly any English, and vice versa with you, how did you guys communicate? Were you able to understand each other?
Communication at the beginning was not always easy but I must say it wasn’t hard. He spoke more English than I spoke Italian so our main communication was through English. He would teach me some Italian words here and there but for the most part it was English. When he had something important to say he would say it in Italian or write it and I became best friends with google translate. We talked a lot, and you would think but they speak two different languages how is that possible. But when you have the will to do something anything is possible, and we made it work. As I said talking to him was just the best part of my day. Even if it took a little more time to understand, but this is how I believe we really got to know and understand each other because we had to talk. We were in two different countries the only thing to do was to talk. This is how we became so close so fast.

What exactly happened to Luca?
Luca was shot two times by a terrorist pretending to be an Afghanistan soldier. ( Italian soldiers where helping the Afghanistan army become independent and efficient) He was shot in the neck and lungs. Leaving him paralyzed from the chest down with little movement in the arms.

How long did you Skype with Luca for before he was injured?
We started skyping and talking November 2010 and he was injured January 2011. Gosh, when I put the dates down it seems like no time at all. People might think, how is this possible to get so close in such a short time? People might say I am crazy. But until you experience it you just will never know. Talking is the best way to understand and to really get to know a person. When you Skype a person for hours and you write them and message them everyday, you get to know the person better than you know yourself and you make the choice. You are able to decide, is this a person I can see myself with? Is this a person who wants the same in life as I do? Can this person be the other half of me and experience life together with me? When you know a person inside and out it is easy to answer those questions.

How did you find out about Luca and what had happened to him? When you found out, did you ever think you would be able to meet him?
Luca was out “far far away” we called it. He would leave the main base every so often and be gone for weeks at a time, you never knew for how long. When he went “far away” the only way to communicate was through the phone. He was able to communicate only specific times during the day, for about two hours or so. These were the periods of time when I was most worried. He always texted me in the middle of the night and I slept by my phone so I wouldn’t miss the messages. There was one day where he didn’t write me anything. I stayed up the whole night waiting for a message. I messaged him many times. There was no response. I was worried. I was scared. I started to tell myself not to worry and that everything was ok. Then a few hours later he messaged me. The weight of the world lifted off my chest. He apologized and explained he was busy and there were something that happened that he wasn’t able to get to his phone. I was just so relieved to hear from him. I went to sleep feeling happy. Like always. Later, I came home from the grocery store and went on Facebook. and saw all these people writing on Luca’s Facebook. How strange, I thought. I didn’t understand what they were writing but as I started to google translate I realized something wasn’t right. There were words like, “Stay strong Luca”, “Keep fighting”, “Don’t give up”, “We are praying for you”. From that moment I had this pit in my stomach. I can’t even describe it to you, there are no worlds to explain the terror and fear that struck through my body. I reached out to his brother and wrote him a message and then finally his older brother called me and explained what happened and the status of Luca’s health. From that moment on I wrote a letter everyday to Luca, and his dad would print them out and read them to him. It helped me. I think it also helped Luca. It made it seem like I still was able to talk to him. I wanted to meet him and to go find him in person. After Luca was taken off the breathing machine he was able to call me, and he told me he had to meet me. From there we decided that on my Spring break I would go to Italy to meet him in person for the very first time.

When his family said they wanted you to come out and meet him, what were your first thoughts? When Luca told me he wanted me to come to Italy to meet him I was so happy. I was scared/worried that after everything that had happened he wouldn’t want me in his life anymore. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He had to see me, he wanted to see me just as much as I wanted to see him. Of course I had butterflies in my stomach but these butterflies were the good butterflies that give you hope and excitement. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous but nonetheless spring break couldn’t come fast enough.

When and where did you meet Luca for the first time in person?
I met Luca in the spinal cord recovery unit in Milan. I met him in his room. I arrived early in the morning and he was still getting ready when I got there so I waited a little outside his room with other soldiers, his dad, and his mom. Time seemed so slow. It was now or never. I had to see if what I thought I knew and felt was real. I am happy to say it was. I walked into his room and there he was. He had a very long stem red rose waiting for me and a big smile on his face. I felt at home. I felt like time never stood between us. We stared for a moment at each other with a big smile on our faces and then we started talking like we did for those months prior to his injury. This was all I wanted. This was all I needed.

How long were you initially in Italy for?
I went to Italy in March of 2011 for about a week.

How many times did you travel to Italy before you moved out there?
After my first visit to Italy in March I went for two months that summer. Then in January 2012 I left for a week to go to Switzerland because he was there for 6 months recovering.

When did you officially move, and where are you living?
I officially moved to Italy in April 2012 about a week after I graduated from college. We lived with his mom for three months until our house was finished. Now I live with Luca in our own home in a small town outside of Milan. It is very quiet and peaceful here.

How is Luca doing now?
Luca is doing really well now. He has adapted to his new life very well. We are taking each day as it comes and living our life the way we want to. He does physical therapy three times a week and continues fight everyday. He is a strong man, both physically and mentally.

Do you have any help with taking care of Luca?
We have a nurse who helps Luca if he needs anything while I’m at work. Thankfully Luca is pretty independent he can use the computer on his own and he has taken up many interests. We have turtles outside in our garden and he has a guide dog that helps him and that he trains. As a couple we are pretty independent we are able to do almost anything we want by ourselves. The only negative thing is that in Italy not everything is wheelchair accessible so we have to always check places out because it is not uncommon to find stairs or bathrooms that are not wheelchair accessible. We try to be as independent as we can.

Do you like life in Italy? What has been the biggest adjustment for you?
I like living in Italy. It helps having Luca as I do not know if I could just move to another country by myself because it is a big adjustment. The language, culture, ways of doing things really take a toll on you. I learned if you have the will to do something you can do it. I am really proud of the things I have accomplished. I speak Italian pretty well. I have a job teaching English in a preschool. I am happy. That is the most important thing. The most difficult thing for me was putting myself out there. I will admit the first few months I lived in a little bubble. I didn’t want to do anything alone. I was scared of going to the grocery store, to put gas in the car because I thought if I do something wrong how will I explain and communicate it to someone. I was afraid of not saying the right thing or speaking poor Italian. I had to learn to drive a stick shift car. I had to go to driving school which entailed taking the written exam and the actual driving exam. There are so many things you do not think about when you decide to move to another country. There are big adjustments and small adjustments. Hulu doesn’t work here in Italy (BUMMER). Reeses cups are non existent. But there are fortunately many wonderful things here in Italy too that you can’t find in America. There are always pros and cons to everything. The important thing is you do what makes you happy. Every choice I have made were choices that made me happy. I can honestly say I am happy. Of course I am not living in la la land or a perfect life, but I am making the most of everything.

What has been your favorite part about living in Italy?
My favorite part about living in Italy is learning the language and visiting different cities and seeing things in my life I never thought I would ever see. The world has so much to offer if you let it. The first few months I wasn’t open to seeing everything there was, but after I got over the fear and jumped right in to the culture and the lifestyle here I have absolutely loved every moment. Let’s not forget about Italian food and fashion. Most of all having my best friend to share it with makes it even better.

And now you have a magical wedding in the works (with a rockstar bridal party, or so I’ve heard)! How is the planning going?
We will be tying the knot this summer. The planning is going, time flies when you are planning a wedding. So many details and things to think about. It can be a little stressful at time but thank goodness I have awesome family and friends and of course bridal party that help me in every way they can. I am so excited. The other day I went to try on the dress and I fell in love with it more than the first time. I just can’t wait!!!!

Looking back on everything, did you ever think that you would be where you are now?
Looking back on everything, I never thought I would be here. I never thought I would be doing the things I am doing. I remember growing up never wanting to go to school because I wanted to stay home with my mom. I had so many fears growing up as a child, but when you decide to get over those fears and do what you want to do and do what makes you happy then the world and life itself is an amazing thing. There are times when I am driving or taking the train to Milan ALONE and I think “wow! look at you Sarah, you are doing it!” I don’t want to sound cheesy but life really is what you make of it. So make it count. I have learned many things and a big one is life is too short. LIVE IT.

Between Luca writing a book, you and Luca meeting the Pope, all of the award ceremonies and special events, what has been the most memorable moment for you?
I would say the most memorable moment was meeting the Pope. It was a humbling experience and when I met him I just felt a serenity. It was something I will never forget. Having that moment with Luca is something that no one can ever take away from us.

**Special Thanks to my friend Alex for providing the terrific insights on “soul mates”. You are absolutely wonderful:)





After Meeting the Pope!

After Meeting the Pope!




Best Friends<333

Best Friends<333

Through New Eyes, Story Seven

    Run faster, throw higher, swim farther. Play longer, hit harder, get stronger.


All of our lives, since we were children, we have been told time and time again to push ourselves; to push ourselves to the next level and to rise to the next challenge. We feed off the satisfaction of knowing we have reached our goal, and we become addicted to the feeling of working harder and reaching farther, all for the sake of hitting the goal we have set for ourselves. We antagonize and tease our boundaries, trying to expand our limits of what we can and cannot do, trying to define our “maximum”, and without a doubt, we seem to always find ourselves astonished at what feats we have conquered. The limits we think we have are exactly that; limits that we have created and established for ourselves. We tell ourselves every day what we are able of doing; we define our limits constantly. We know we are capable of going into work every day, we are confident we can run a few miles every week, but climb a mountain, train for a marathon, or row a boat across the ocean, well, those may be things that many of us agree we will never be able to do. And we each have one million excuses as to why we can’t do those things. Maybe we don’t think we are fit enough, maybe we believe we don’t have enough time, and we lecture ourselves that we are too overweight, too underweight, too tired, or maybe just too plain out lazy to really tackle those seemingly impossible and insane goals. We convince ourselves that those things, those ambitions, are for other people, people who were just born with the gift of being able to tackle outrageous challenges. Because those challenges were not meant for us.

But guess what? They were. And anyone who has taken on one of those challenges started at the exact same spot as us. The only difference is, when faced with something crazy and unknown, they said “Let’s do it”.

All of that said, for the seventh installment of the “Through New Eyes” series, I am VERY excited to introduce you to Katie Spotz, a true adventurer, thrill-seeker, and just straight out rock star. I had the pleasure of meeting Katie when she came and spoke at my church in November, and I was floored, and completely inspired, when I heard her story. She’s been interviewed by Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, Diane Sawyer, been featured in Sports Illustrated Magazine, The New York Times, Huffington Post, and was named Woman of the Year in Glamour Magazine. Let’s just say, this girl has done it all. From tackling marathons, to swimming the entire length of the Allegheny River, to eventually being the youngest person to row a boat solo across the Atlantic Ocean (yepp, you read that right), she brings a whole new meaning to grabbing life by the horns. Or an oar, in this case.

Here is her story, in her own words…

Have you always been into doing adventurous things? What was the first adventurous thing that you did that really got the ball rolling in developing your passion for adventure and endurance challenges?
​Not at all. Most of my life I was the benchwarmer and was not a star athlete. Then, at 18 I signed up for a walking and running class in college. I started running a few times each week and week by week would run a few miles more. After doing a ten mile run, that’s when I considered doing my first endurance challenge – a 26.2 mile marathon.

The first “big” adventure that you did was swim across the Allegheny River. How did you get the idea to do something like this in the first place?
Not swim across! That would take a few minutes. I swam the entire length at 325 miles. I got the idea after learning about another man that had swum the Mississippi River.

When you swam across the river, how did you go about training for this? Had you had past swimming experience, say, for instance, being on a swim team?
Most of my training happened during the swim! I had been swimming since I was very young. I was never that fast but could go forever!

How many miles did you swim and how long did it take you? How many hours did you swim straight at one time?
About 12-15 miles a day. The most was 22 miles in a day and I would usually swim one or two hours at a time before taking a break for food.

What kinds of thoughts were going through your head when you were doing this challenge? How did you motivate yourself to keep going, even when maybe you didn’t want to continue?
I actually had a waterproof music player so I would listen to that. There were only 50 or 60 songs to listen to but it helped! The best part of endurance is getting in “the zone” when you don’t really think at all.

Was there a boat alongside you that made sure you were ok? What kind of support system did you have?
Yes, I had my good friend join as my safety kayaker. It was just me, my friend, some camping gear, and a lot of trail mix and ramen noodles!

What did you eat during this swim? How were you able to stay hydrated and energized?
I had a way to purify the river water and would fill up whenever we were near any towns. I ate lots of high calories foods – nuts, bars, dried fruit – and lots of carbohydrate rich foods.

What kind of feeling did you experience when the swim was over? Were you relived it was over or was it more of a bittersweet feeling?
It was very bittersweet. I wanted to keep going because physically I adjusted to the mileage and loved the sense of adventure and freedom on living eat, sleep, swim.

Do you actively swim now? Would you ever consider doing a challenge like this again?
Yes, I do triathlon now so it’s lots of swimming, biking, and running. My main focus now it triathlon and I’d prefer to exercise and then have a bed to go to at night!

What kind of advice would you give someone who was interested in doing a similar challenge?
Don’t waste energy doubting yourself. There are no “special people” that are only capable of doing challenges like this. We are all very capable of doing whatever it is that we set our minds to.

Ok, moving on to our big solo trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Can you explain how you initially got the idea to travel solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a row boat?
I was sitting on a bus in Australia chatting to the person next to me. He mentioned his friend had rowed the Atlantic and it was an idea I never forgot! I had no rowing or boating experience and yet I was s intrigued by something I thought was not humanly possible!

What was your starting point and what was your ending point?
Dakar, Senegal to Georgetown, Guyana.

Why did you want to do this challenge? What was it about this challenge that really inspired you to do it?
The challenge but also the opportunity to help. It was a “Row for Water” and I was able to raise funds and awareness for a good cause along the way. After learning that over 1 billion people on our planet didn’t have clean water to drink I knew I had to do something!

How many miles was it and how long did it take you?
3,000 miles in 70 days

How did you go about training for this? How much time did you give yourself to train for your challenge?
It took about 2 years to prepare learning everything from celestial navigation to how to use a desalinator and everything in between! It felt like I was learning how to go into space with all the gadgets that I would rely on to get my across.

How did you go about making your dream a reality? What were the steps you had to take in setting up this challenge (i.e., where/how did you get the boat, how did you know what to eat and bring with you, etc.)?
It felt like I was looking at a million piece puzzle and it was a matter of trying to figure out how it would fit together along the way. It didn’t always feel like I was making progress. There would be months and months of trying to find a sponsor and just when I thought it wouldn’t happen I would get surprised by a new supporter or sponsor.

Did you know anyone else that had done anything like this?
I did contact a few other ocean rowers before the challenge although none lived close to me. Most of my communications were with British ocean rowers as there aren’t many in the states!

Why did you choose the route that you did? Had others done this challenge going on the same route you did?
It was right near the equator and I love the heat! Most of the others went from islands off the coast of Africa to islands in the Caribbean because it’s an easier route with being right within the trade winds/current.

What did you eat on the boat? Did you constantly feel hungry or was the food that you brought along sufficient for the trip?
Lots of dehydrated meals. I had half a million calories on the boat and more than I could possibly need to make it across! It worked although you can only eat the same meals so many times until it gets a bit boring.

Where did you sleep, and did you sleep well on the boat?
I slept on a cabin in the boat but would wake up several times throughout the night, often every two or three hours.

Did the isolation of being completely alone ever really get to you? If so, how did you overcome that feeling?
I got overwhelmed but I never felt alone. I knew that I had my family and friends with me in spirit and knew that they cared about me even if I was thousands of miles away.

Did you bring anything to entertain yourself on the boat?
Music was my main source of entertainment and then watching the dolphins do their tricks!

Did you ever take a break, just to relax and give your body some time off from rowing?
I did take one “mental health day” where all I did was lay in the cabin, eat chocolate, and watch movies on my iPod touch.

Did you ever just want to give up and quit? If so, what kinds of things did you do to push yourself and motivate yourself to continue your journey?
Absolutely! Several times I thought to myself that I didn’t know how it wouldn’t be possible to get through. When I couldn’t wrap my head around the big picture I would just focus on the next step ahead.

Did you run into any challenges while on your trip? Did the boat run ok during the course of the trip?
For sure. Fires, 30 foot waves, and sharks!

Did you see any animals while on your journey?
Lots! For example, I saw dolphins, shark, jelly fish, sea turtles, albatross, glowing plankton, etc.

Now you are clean water activist. Why did you initially want to get involved in this cause?
I was in class and my professor mentioned that the wars of the future would be on water. It was like someone told me the wars of the future would be on air! I didn’t understand the world water crisis living on one of the greatest sources of fresh water on our planet. After learning all the facts I knew I wanted to help.

How are you generating awareness for your foundation, Row for Water?
With the media and attention the adventures bring as well as the speaking I do in schools across America.

Interested in learning more about Katie and her Row for Water foundation? Check out her websites here:



Katie's Route

Katie’s Route



Through New Eyes, Story Six

Croatian Rugby Team

Croatian Rugby Team

“Travel is the only thing that makes you richer”How many of you have heard those words spoken or read those words somewhere before? How many of you have heard the quote and merely brushed it off, putting it in the basket of age-old clichés, right next to the “You only live once” and Get rich or die trying” (bad example) expressions of the world. You may have heard the quote a million times before, never really soaking it in and taking it for what it’s really worth. You see, to people like me that live for the adventure, to those who are constantly seeking and searching for the next best thing and whose only goal is to have an incredible, astounding, and down-right wild story to tell, we have first handedly seen how rich we’ve become from the memories we’ve made and the awe-inspiring things we’ve seen during our travels. For those people who constantly wish to absorb everything this world has to offer, the world will never be enough. We will always want to experience more and more, never ceasing to be amazed at the richness and fullness we feel after having been a part of something larger than ourselves. We may even agree that the quote holds some truth to it, but only a small number of us actively pursue the greatest wealth offered in this world; the wealth of travel.

For my sixth installment of my “Through New Eyes” project, I am featuring someone who has seen and experienced how great the gift of travel is. Having been born in the United States, Mike decided long ago that he was going to see the world, no strings attached. So, one day during Junior year of high school, Mike applied to Bond University in Australia, and well, you could say the rest is history. Now, after completing his undergrad in Australia, joining a travel rugby team in Croatia, eating chicken feet in Japan, drinking 40-year-old brandy in Malaysia and now living in Dubai completing his Masters of Science (Oil & Gas Management), it’s easy to understand why Mike wants to continue his adventures in traveling the world, without having the slightest thought of coming home.

Here is his story, in his own words…

So you’ve lived all across the world. Have you always been interested in traveling or was it something that just kind of happened?
I guess growing up, every person has some fascination with travel and the intrigues that go along with it. I always had the urge to travel but was limited due to school, sport or work. During high school, you start thinking about where to go to uni (university). I was reading a magazine about unis and there was a section about studying abroad on it and Bond University caught my eye. The school was located on the Gold Coast in Australia and had a beautiful looking campus and offered business programs. I knew I wanted to study finance and international business but really didn’t have an idea where I wanted to go. I just finished Year 10 at Ignatius and quit all sports I was doing to focus on other things. I then thought, why study abroad for a semester, why not just do my whole degree there. I enquired through a representative who was recruiting students in the USA and told him about my marks and testing scores. He said I would get in no problem (entry to Australian universities is quite simple and straightforward) I remember during the first week of Year 11 I was sitting in a St. Ignatius classroom and decided I was going to this university. After 5th period English I left the school and went straight to my mums work and told her I was transferring to SHS and I was going to graduate early (because of the number of credits I had accumulated in Middle School and Ignatius) and then pissing off to Australia. I was a very rash 16 year old you could say and was quite independent so within a few days I was enrolled to Strongsville and was on track to graduate after year 11. I applied after the first semester of year 11 and within a week, got the acceptance to Bond Uni. I graduated during 2006 and was enrolled to start the first semester of 2007 at Bond. Australian universities start in January or February. I was attracted to Bond because it would only take 2 years for my bachelors. For a normal Bachelors in the world (outside of North America) it is 3 years for a typical bachelors degree. They don’t waste time with liberal arts studies and I knew what I wanted to study and didn’t want to waste my time or money taking bullshit classes for a year. Bond studies 3 semesters a year so breaks between semesters are only 3 weeks and there are 3 semesters a year so this suited me. So January 3rd, 2007 was the first time that I left the USA, going to a place which was 10,000 miles away with no one I knew.

So Australia was your first big move abroad to study. Tell me a little about your school, Bond University.
Like I said first place I ever went to overseas was on the Gold Coast, Australia. The Gold Coast is about a 50 kilometre stretch of coastline just south of Brisbane in Queensland. It is known as a tourist hotspot with clean beaches, good nightlife and a multicultural centre. To be honest, I have ever heard of the area before I saw Bond. Coming to Bond, I knew no one except the person that recruited me who was a former student there. Bond, at the time, was almost a 50 50 split between domestic and international students. Going there, I met people from all over the world and opened my eyes to more cultures from around the world.

How long did you live there for?
I spent my first two years in Australia studying at Bond. The first year I stayed in the country, and only returned back to Cleveland during the December break. 20 hours of flying is not exactly the most fun thing to do. The university had quite a lot of American study abroad students and I was one of few full time Americans. However, leaving the country I did not want to mix with too many Americans. I made friends with quite a few British, Canadian and Australian students. Joining a local rugby club as well helped me get to know a lot more people on the coast. Most of them were kiwis (New Zealanders) who populate the Gold Coast. Kiwis can come to Australia without a visa and can live and work there. At the time, the money and jobs were a lot more plentiful in Oz than NZ. After I graduated, I applied for a graduate visa to stay in Australia to gain working experience. Seeing what was happening in the States at the time of 2009, staying in Australia where wages were quite high and unemployment only at 4%, it was a smart move. For example, working in the Food and Beverage Department for the university as a student, I was making over 20 dollars an hour. Wages were quite high in Australia but a lot of things (mostly bad things) were quite expensive. Petrol (Gasoline) was between 1 and 1.40 dollar a litre so that equates to between 4 to 5.50 a gallon. A carton (24) of beer was between 40 and 50 dollars and a packet of cigarettes was 10 dollars when I got there and 17 dollars by the time I left in 2012. This did not stop many Australians as Australians know how to have a good life and saving money is not a major concern. The lifestyle and quality of life in Australia is uncomparable to that of the USA. I worked for the university I went to as an Admissions Officer working with Middle Eastern and European students. However, after five years, I wanted to take a break and go to Europe for a little ‘gap’ year.

Your family is from Europe, correct? What part are they from?
Mum’s parents are from Croatia and that influence was always there growing up. Going to Croatian weddings, eating Croatian food, drinking Croatian rakija was all standard whenever we went to baka’s (grandmum’s) house. I knew that Croatia was planning on joining the EU so in 2009, I decided to apply for Croatian citizenship through my grandparents. I gained Croatian citizenship after a year and have a Croatian passport now. While playing rugby in Australia, one of my mates whom I played with always was of Croatian descent. He had the opportunity to go over and play for the Croatian national team. This always intrigued me and since I never went there, I wanted to take a little gap year. Gap years are quite popular with Australians where they go travelling for a year after high school and before they go to uni. I feel that Americans don’t do this because many are pressured to go straight to university and blah blah blah. I got in touch with one of the local rugby clubs in Zagreb (Croatian capital) and went over there in March 2012. The club paid for my rent, food and beer which was cheap as chips compared to Australia. Going to Croatia for 9 months was a great decision. I met family that I never met before and did some great traveling throughout Europe. Making homemade rakija (brandy) with my family in the country was always a good time. Driving around on tractors and getting to know them was a great experience. They didn’t have much in terms of money and possessions but every time I visited, they always put on a full spread. I made the Croatian national team for two campaigns and did traveling to Slovenia, Serbia, Switzerland, Andorra and Lithuania. Rugby is one of those things where you can go anywhere in the world and someone will help you find a club and whatnot. So many of my friends in Australia have gone and played in the UK or Ireland for a season or two and all have loved it. I will discuss more down below!

So after you initially moved abroad, did you come back to the States at all?
In the past seven years I have been home only two times. I went back for four weeks during the December break in 2007. The other time I went home for 6 months from May 2009 to October 2009. I was working at a job I did throughout high school and wanted a little break from Australia. It is funny that when I originally went to Australia, many of my friends could not believe that I would leave the states to go to uni. I received some scholarship offers from American universities and received nothing from Bond. However, after I finished uni after two years and did some travelling between 2008-2009 (NZ, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand) all of them became strangely jealous. After this stint back in the states, I returned back to Australia for the next 2 and a half years.

Alright, so after Austrailia, you moved to Croatia. What did you do there and how do you even hear about the opportunity in the first place?
As I said before, I was working as an Admissions Officer at Bond Uni. I was living in a house with a coworker and another person as well on the Gold Coast. The money was very good and the lifestyle was very relaxed so coming back to Oz was the right decision. In Croatia, I shared a flat with one of my rugby teammates and another person as well. We lived in Trešnjevka which was about 2 kilometres from the centre of Zagreb which made everything quite convenient. Zagreb is a traditional eastern European city with a lot of old history and architecture. Coming there for the first time was definitely nervous and not speaking the best Croatian was going to be a challenge. However, almost everyone from our generation spoke English way better than I spoke Croatian which was good and bad. I wanted to work on the language as it is part of my roots but everyone spoke English when needed so I didn’t work on it as much as I wanted it to. Zagreb is not as glitzy as London or Paris but it is quite easy to get around and Croatians are quite friendly as well. Being a country for only 20 years, Croatians are very patriotic and are quite strict in their ways. I met most of my friends though rugby but it was easy to meet people when going out. Croatian girls are quite easy to approach and love a good chat and want to hear about you which was always a bonus. Balkan girls are quite fun and a lot more easy to get along with than western girls so that worked out as well. For people who don’t know too much about Croatia, the coastline is among the best in the world. And also having over 1,100 islands that belong to the country, the island scene is unreal. Croatia is one of the fastest growing gems of Europe and recently joining the EU will boost the country even more. Even though half of the country resent the EU and who knows how long it will even be around for. I was in Zagreb for 9 months and got to do some amazing travel with rugby and on my own as well. I will talk about more places down below as well.

And now you are living in Dubai. What exactly are you doing over there? How did you come to the decision that Dubai was the place where you wanted to be?
I am currently based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I am sure when people hear of people, they think of big glitzy buildings and large shopping malls. However, it is more than that. I don’t know if you can tell me another city in the world that has over 200 nationalities. And considering, Dubai was just a desert forty years ago, they have evolved into a global hub. Positioned quite well between Asia and Europe, Dubai serves as a middle-men to a majority of the world’s population. Studying in Australia, I met my best mate who is British but has grown up in Dubai because of his family. I had the opportunity to visit him two times in 2009 and once in 2011 and after Europe, I decided that was my next place to go. There are chances in Dubai that you will not find anywhere else in the world. There are opportunities in every sector and if you can work and market yourself well, anyone with an education can acquire a position here. It is one of the safest cities in the world I have ever been to. For example, you can leave your car running in a carpark all day and the only concern you will have is how much petrol you have wasted. Of course, there are some issues that many westerners have to deal with. It is an Islamic society and you must respect cultural values. However, Dubai is quite liberal compared to other Islamic countries or cities. Some of the world’s best nightclubs and parties are in this city and tourists from all over the world flock here. You do have to put up with 50 C (120 F) summers but you soon get used to it. I am currently working with an hospitality supplier dealing with hotels all across the country. I am also completing my Masters of Science (Oil and Gas Management) through correspondence from the University of Liverpool in the UK. I felt that gain GCC experience, this will help me when I complete my studies and shift into this industry. Having a group of friends here before I moved here definitely has helped me a lot because many people come to this city and do not know many people. The working conditions here for westerners are second to none and the tax-free salaries help as well. At this point in my life, there is no other place I would rather be to work.

How long have you lived in Dubai? How did you go about finding a place to live?
I came to Dubai after doing some traveling for five weeks in Southeast Asia. I would have loved to stay in Croatia but there are very little opportunities there. I was speaking to a good mate of mine from university and he said that I should come out there and gain some GCC experience. Considering what my masters is in, I thought that would be the next best move from my end. I have been in Dubai almost one year now and you gain a different perspective of it if you work here than if you come to visit here. There’s a main website called which is sort of a Craigslist for everything. Cars, electronics, apartments or jobs are all listed here and it is one of the most populated websites in Dubai. I found a flat-sharing room in the Marina end of the city. Unfortunately rent here can be quite steep as rent continues to climb and climb after the recent 2009 crisis here. For example, I share a flat with three other guys (all of whom are good to live with btw ) and my rent is roughly 950 USD a month. Of course everyone would like to have their own place but at the time, it is not feasible.

Tell me about the craziest/random thing that you have experienced while living abroad.
Unfortunately all of my random and crazy stories usually involve copious amounts of alcohol. Being invited to a Malaysian wedding, where I was the only westerner, and drinking 40 year old brandy with the groom’s father. Walking out of a Thai back-alley pool hall at ten in the morning in Phuket. Going straight from a Malaysian nightclub to the airport at 7 am for a 20 hour flight. Or planning on just having a quiet drink while on holiday and before you know it the sun is coming up. I figure that I am best just to live in the moment but also to be safe at the same time as well. Many times when I go somewhere, I meet up with friends that I have there so that helps out a great deal as well.

What was the coolest thing you’ve eaten while abroad?
There are a couple of interesting options. I have had chicken feet in Japan, Tarantula in Cambodia, Snake in Vietnam and Camel and Crocodile in Australia. I am believe of you have to try everything local so that is what I try to do. To me, Malaysia is the best place in the world for food. No matter what time of the day it is, you are able to get food in Malaysia. With the wide mix of cultures, there is something for everyone as well. My favourite breakfast item is called Bak kut the which is a pork fat and meat soup. Talk about a good breakfast!

What has been the hardest part about traveling so much and not living close to home?
Leaving everyone and everything you have known before definitely is the hardest part. I was a pretty independent 18 year old but even I felt a little homesick at first. After a while though, I got used to the fact and kept myself busy. Making new friends as well made things easier too. Having so many forms of communication now also makes things easier to stay in touch with family and friends. Missing big events like family/friends weddings and funerals definitely hits hard as well but this is the choice I have to make while living abroad.

Do you ever have friends/family that come and visit?
I have had three good childhood friends from Strongsville come to visit me in Australia. My dad and sister came out to visit me in 2007 during my first year in Australia. And last year when I was in Australia for a month, my mom and sister came to visit me. I have not been home since 2009 and haven’t seen much of my family since then.

How long do you see yourself living in Dubai for? Do you think you are going to stay there for a while or do you already have the itch to travel somewhere different again?
At the moment, there is no other place I want to be for work. However, with my masters, I am willing to go anywhere to get into the industry. Whether that is around the Middle East, Africa or Russia/CIS. I would like to stay in the middle east but I will not limit myself to another move. It would also be nice to stay in Dubai due to the liberal lifestyle and the fact that several of my good friends are here.

Do you see yourself coming back to America?
Going to uni in Australia was the initial move and the ball just kept rolling along from one place to another. You only live once and after a while overseas, I realized that I do not really want to return to the USA. I don’t see myself returning there to live but who knows what will happen down the road.

What has been the most significant thing you’ve learned while living abroad?
Don’t limit yourself. Don’t have anyone tell you not to do something. Always have an open mind when it comes to going to a certain place. Some people doubted me when I first left and I guess that is also the American mentality when it comes to traveling abroad. However, several years later, everyone wants to hear and see what I have been doing. I have always kept an open mind on the world and you need this if you plan on visiting and living in different countries. Also, not everywhere is like home. Things across the world are different and people need to realize this instead of complaining about how it is not like home.

What are you experiencing as being an American overseas? Are people welcoming to you, or do they treat you as the “ugly American” people occasionally perceive Americans to be? What have you learned are people’s perceptions of Americans?
I have received a wide range of view from people over my travels. Some people that I have met love Americans and some people really do not fancy Americans at all. I have met a lot of people who have said that they have traveled the USA but they would never live there. Also a lot of them see some resentment towards Americans who come to their country and then complain how it is not as good or some things are different from the USA. I feel that most Americans do not have an open mind when it comes to going to another country and this in turn leads to bad feedback from foreigners. I haven’t really been proud of my American roots and do not dwell on them at all when I go to another country as I try to soak up local culture as much as I can. I never plan on returning to the USA to live so I usually don’t argue when someone has something bad to say about the USA. I don’t view myself as truly that American anymore and the only thing holding me to the country is my passport.

Is there anything you would have done differently?
To be honest with you, there is nothing that I would have changed. Considering when I left the USA when I was 18, I have done and seen more than people will do in their whole lifetime. I don’t hold any regrets because if you them, then they will haunt you. I prefer to live in the moment and always look ahead as compared to looking to the past.



Bond University

Bond University





A huge shout-out is due to
my good friend Amanda for making this happen. I owe you a bloody mary, or three:)

The World is Not Enough credit: