A Dream Built On Ice

CurlingMy wife of 15 years, Debbie, grew up on the ice in and around Madison, Wis. She wasn’t a hockey player, figure skater, ice dancer, speed skater or ice fisherman. Instead, she was (and still is) a curler. You know, that sport that gets many people excited when they see it on television during the Olympics.

She developed her passion for it at a young age and got her start competing at the junior-national level. Her first world competition was in Scotland and she has two silver and two bronze medals to show for her time in juniors.

As she continued to develop as a curler, she received opportunities to represent the United States in several competitions, including the Winter Olympics. In fact, our trip to Sochi, Russia in February marked her fourth appearance in the Winter Games. She also competed in Nagano, Japan (1998), Salt Lake City (2002) and Vancouver (2010) and was the skip (captain) on the only U.S. women’s curling team to ever win the world championship back in 2003.

As an agent for American Family Insurance, I spend a lot of time talking to customers about their dreams and the chase that goes with them, whether it’s building a house, protecting your family with life insurance or buying the boat you’ve always wanted. Dreams never come easy, but they’re always worth the chase.

I’ve taken great satisfaction in helping protect my customer’s dreams, but it’s also neat to live my wife’s dream with her.

When I look at Debbie, I see someone who has become an accomplished, four-time Olympian and one of the best female curlers in our nation’s history.

And she’s built on her successes in other ways. She’s an owner of a business that sells curling supplies. She has her own retail store and even started a mobile pro shop where she’ll take her products to the curling clubs as opposed to the clubs coming to her.

That was her dream, and she’s made it happen. And she’s done so with limited resources. Many of the athletes Debbie competes against are fully funded and paid to play the sport of curling by their sports’ governing body or their governments.

In the United States, there is no funding that comes from our government and very little that comes from our United State Olympic committee for curling. The entire women’s team is comprised by people with regular, full-time jobs and families, people like you and me.

Debbie’s journey as a curler often reminds me of the value of dreams. So many of us get wrapped up in our day-to-day duties and responsibilities, and we should, because what we do at American Family is very important. But we should also leave enough time to chase our dreams.

For Debbie and I, that means long weekends traveling away from home, but it’s easy to justify when we’re doing something we love. And it’s been great for me as far as being able to travel with her and see parts of the world I never thought I would.

Heck, if it wasn’t for Debbie’s dream, I probably wouldn’t have been able to propose to her during the 1998 Winter Games in Japan because we probably wouldn’t have been there. That’s a moment we’ll never forget. And it’s a moment that happened because of her dream -- our dream.

I hope you take time to chase yours. 

Small Businesses, We Salute You: Enter To Win and Pursue Your Dream

American Family Insurance Small Biz Dream SweepstakesHave you ever noticed the way so many entrepreneurs light up when talking about their next venture? Their eyes sparkle. They speak passionately. And most noticeably – they radiate an infectious energy that leaves no doubt in your mind: They are living out their dreams to the fullest.

The truth is, by choosing to go after their dreams, these small business and startup owners keep America humming day after day. For example, did you know?

  • There are nearly 28 million small businesses in the U.S. (500 or fewer employees). 
  • Small businesses employ 120 million people in the U.S. That's more than half the country's working population! 
  • Approximately 543,000 new small businesses are founded in the U.S. each month.

Whether you are a small business owner – or simply frequent one in your neighborhood, I think we can all agree, their passionate approach to their dreams makes our local communities stronger, and in my case – reminds and inspires me to go after my own dreams with the same, insatiable hunger and excitement.

It’s why I’m excited American Family is doing its part to thank, celebrate and support the dreams of these exceptional people with the Small Biz Dreams Sweepstakes. Whether you’re thinking of launching a startup, or are actively growing an already-established small business, the Small Biz Dreams prizes are designed to help you take the next step in pursuing your business dream.

Feeling lucky? Enter today

Editor's note: Business Accelerator is a business toolbox designed to help small business owners and entrepreneurs build and grow their businesses. BA members enjoy free, instant access to professional business advice, interviews and live business workshops catered to meet their ongoing business needs. This FREE online resource from American Family Insurance is a platform to provide you with valuable access to visionaries, tips and tools to help you in every phase of your small business dream. 

Crossing One Off of My Basketball Bucket List

Tyrone CollierLet me say this upfront. I love basketball. I’d even go so far as to say I’m passionate about basketball.

For the past ten years, I’ve been officiating high school basketball games. So when the season rolls around, it’s a busy few months for me. Fortunately, my wife and son know how passionate I am about basketball and even come to the games I officiate!

Last December, Regan Fackrell, American Family’s East Region State Sales Director, came to my office as part of his plan to meet all the agents in his area. The first thing out of his mouth was, “I want to know about all of these pictures.” You see, I have a collage of photos on my wall of me officiating back-to-back state high school basketball championships in Ohio.

In the course of our conversation, I told him about the High School Slam Dunk and 3-Point Championship event American Family sponsors every year. The event showcases 16 of the nation's top high school basketball players in a competition during Final Four weekend. I said if there were any way possible, I’d love the opportunity to represent our company. He let me know that he would look into and see what he could do.

Tyrone Collier and Jess LeseskyTo be honest, I really wasn’t expecting anything to happen. About a month later I got a phone call letting me know that it was approved for me to represent our company and be one of the judges for the slam dunk contest! I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen!

The event was amazing. Just the energy of all of the high school kids was inspiring. I even had the chance to meet Adreian Payne, starting forward for the Michigan State Spartans and 2014 NBA draft prospect. It was great to meet him because I remember officiating his high school games.

This event far exceeded any expectations I ever had or could have dreamed of and it only got better from there. I also had the opportunity to attend the NCAA Final Four games. This was certainly a “bucket list” event and a dream come true. A dream that started with a desire and a simple comment to Regan.

The only thing that would have made this trip better is if Wisconsin would have won!

Never give up on your dreams

Jessica LesekyIn life, almost everyone has something that challenges them. What we endure each day shapes us into the unique people we are. The day my challenge was made clear to me was when my head crashed against the floor – and the once vivid world I saw suddenly went black.

Ever since I was little, I knew I was different. I never had as much energy as other kids, and always seemed to be in some sort of pain. Most kids don't look back on their childhood and think about all the doctor appointments they went to, but for me, that was part of my everyday life.

We were constantly searching for an answer, constantly trying every possible solution to attempt to make me feel better, but it was useless. I spent hours upon hours in waiting rooms and hospitals getting tested and treated, only to end up empty-handed and answerless.

Defying all odds, I continued to chase after my dream to keep playing. My passion for the game and dedication has allowed me to overcome my daily struggle and play the game I love. 

However, I never gave up. I just hoped and prayed one day things would turn around and my body would heal. It wasn't until things hit an all-time low for me that I began to get some answers.

It got to the point where I could no longer move. I could no longer hear more than a drowned-out echo, draw in a sharp breath to speak, or even tolerate my own thoughts. The nausea would become unbearable and as lifeless and tired as I felt it was too exhausting to sleep. So I would lay, comatose.

I wallowed in my own suffering and aching body. I tried to fight every second of it but my head was too heavy and my mind was too thick to even register the movement. I would lay there and vaguely recall how I became that way. My vision was blurred but even if I could see clearly the room would be spiraling out of control. Every speck of noise entered me like a wave of pain that ate away at me as I laid there helpless and broken. My face was burning and I felt smothered by my own body heat, yet chills raced up and down my spine cutting into me like knives with every shiver.

That is what I felt like on a regular basis when I would have one of my episodes. It wasn't until I was 15 that doctors discovered I had an autonomic nervous system disease known as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). It mainly affects heart rate and blood pressure regulation, but the symptoms of POTS are life-altering and debilitating at times. Patients use about three times more energy to stand than a healthy person. Simple, everyday activities can be exhausting. Most patients have to make some lifestyle adjustments to cope with this disorder.

Jessica LesekyEven though I still struggle daily, I refuse to let my POTS win. I will not let it bring me down, nor have I let it.

There were many days I had to push through my fatigue to practice with my basketball team, and several times I ended up fainting after games. Defying all odds, I continued to chase after my dream to keep playing. My passion for the game and dedication has allowed me to overcome my daily struggle and play the game I love. God had a plan for me I didn't understand, but I continued to have faith and perseverance.

The journey that led me to the American Family Insurance High School Slam Dunk and Three-point Championships in Dallas began on our first playoff game day. I raced into the gym (late again) and began to get ready. I pretended to concentrate on putting on my gear to avoid another comment on being late as my coach, Joe Zenir, darted towards me.

However, instead of a lecture he informed me of a random email he received about a three-point competition. I had no idea the email was going to be the ticket to achieving my dreams. Later that week I created the highlight film for the voting, (still completely oblivious of how large the competition really was) and my journey was slowly set in motion.

Every basketball player dreams to compete in a national event like the High School Slam Dunk and Three-point Championships, but for me to even play with my condition was miracle. So to be given the opportunity through the voting was nothing short of fate. For me, being at the competition was so much more than just playing basketball. It was the ultimate way to show people, especially those who have challenges in their lives, how far I have come with my challenge and hopefully inspire others with my story.

American Family Insurance High School SlamClick HERE to watch highlights from Jessica's performance at the American Family Insurance 3-point Championships.

My dream dangled right in front of me on my computer. It was torture knowing the moment I have been wishing for … fighting for … staying strong for … was only out of reach by a few votes. Friends, family and strangers all over the country started to ban together to help. With the combined effort from everyone, I was able to win the voting to earn the sixth and final slot to go to Dallas.

I will never forget the feeling of pure love and support that filled me when I saw my dreams turned into reality on my computer screen.

The week leading up to the championship was a whirlwind. The night I found out I was going to Dallas I drove straight up to the gym to shoot at 10 p.m., and stayed until they kicked me out. It was the busiest week of my life – but also the greatest. I got my taste of 15 minutes of fame, and luckily mine lasted a lot longer.

Aside from all the interviews, radio calls, TV appearances and more, I spent every extra waking moment in the gym. The only way to calm my nerves was to go shoot. And even when I wasn't, I focused on the mental aspect of my game and visualized my routine with each shot going in. I was extra driven to do great in the competition – not only for myself, but for everyone who voted for me. I wanted to thank everyone who got me there in the best way possible – by winning the whole thing.

I didn't want to be anyone but me, and that was the best feeling in the world.

On the day before the competition, I boarded a plane to Dallas with a basketball in my carry-on bag and a heart filled with excitement. I got picked up by my own driver and taken to the gorgeous hotel. I felt like a celebrity! The place was crawling with basketball players – both college level and high school. It was crazy for me to think I was one of them. I went to bed that night eager for the events the next day and for my time to shine.

The morning of the completion, we made our way to Duncanville High School, which was HUGE! We spent most of the morning in the gym warming up and doing film work. That was one of the most entertaining parts! The girls and I laughed and joked at how none of us knew what we were doing. I had a blast saying lines to the camera and bustin' out my best dribble moves for when they introduced each player.

I was having way too much fun to be nervous at all that day! I gained so much confidence just from the beginning of the day, and I loved that I could be myself. I didn't care what anyone thought about me, because I finally felt proud of who I was and what I accomplished by just being there.

I didn't want to be anyone but me, and that was the best feeling in the world.

Jessica LesekyAfter a long morning of anticipation, we were finally allowed in the main gym to warm up for the event. I stayed away from shooting threes the entire day, and continued to work on my form shooting until each shot I took was nothing but net. The crowd started to pour in and fill every single seat in the colossal gym. The other players were busy warming up and shooting, but I took a step back to take it all in.

I was in awe of where I was, and then it hit me. I made it. I'm here. Jessica Lesesky, from the little town of Brecksville , Ohio. ME, the girl who was told I had to quit basketball. "The sick girl" who was just found passed out in the shower only a month ago. I'm standing here. HERE. I actually made it.

It was beautiful: The lights, the colors, the crowd, the noise. It all it synced together to form a perfect moment. I’d already won, just by standing there for that very second. Everything I fought through in my life was finally – FINALLY – worth it.

The energy in the gym was electrifying. The crowd was so enthusiastic. I think I had more fun watching them then they had watching us! The boys were up first. I had so much fun just cheering them on, I was always the first one to jump up off the bench and give them high-fives! I knew their time was winding down, and we would be next.

I said a quick prayer before running out to be introduced and knew from the calmness I felt – I was ready for my moment. I was secretly hoping for three things: 

  • I would shoot at the hoop I warmed up on.
  • I would go first (so I wouldn't have time to get nervous by watching the other players)
  • And to compete against the one girl at the other end.

All were extremely unlikely but I still prayed for them. To my amazement, they announced when our turn was and ALL THREE of the things I prayed for happened. I knew right then and there, God was going to carry me through the competition. I stepped up to take my turn, taking as deep of breaths as my lungs would allow me to keep myself sane.

It wasn't until the buzzer rang to start and I picked up the first basketball that the waves of nerves hit me. My entire body was shaking so violently I'm not sure I was able to even move and shoot let alone MAKE them! Actually shooting was a blur. I just remember I was smiling the entire time because I was having so much fun.

Before I knew it the first round was over and I had the highest score at a 17. The next round started before I could even catch my breath! I waited anxiously in my starting position for the buzzer to ring, but there were issues with the score board so I had to wait for what seemed like forever in pure apprehension. I finally stood up and looked around to figure out what was going on and "BUZZ!" the alarm rang to start and caught me off guard! I picked up the first ball to shoot and CLANK! It bounces off the side of the backboard.

It was an ugly start, but it didn't matter. I made the next four shots. The crowd ROARED! I ended up with a final score of 17 again, and my competitor had scored just five. I was in too much shock to even realize I’d won! They announced my name and called me to the center court to receive my trophy, but I just stood there.

Frozen. Comatose. In awe.

Jessica and her dadThe first step I took I wanted to just drop to me knees in pure amazement. My most cherished memory by far was when the producers asked my dad to come down from the stands (he was the only parent they asked to do that), and I was able to run and give him a hug and share this unforgettable moment with him.

To see how proud he was of me was the most rewarding and joyous moment of my entire life. I am going to remember that forever. As much as my face seriously started to hurt, I couldn't stop smiling. I didn't just make it, I WON IT!

It was the most incredible experience and winning the entire event made it far beyond a dream come true.

I have been blessed enough to have miracles worked in me and I am in awe that God chose me to show the world just a glimpse of the astounding things He can do. I hope I inspired people with my story and that they never EVER give up. No matter what challenges life throws or what people say, keep chasing your dreams – because anything is possible, and dreams truly do come true.

Editor's note: American Family Insurance is the title sponsor of the High School Slam Dunk and 3-point Championships. 

Sick Kids Don't Wait

From left: John Flad, Harvey Pierce, Jack Salzwedel and Rich LynchI recently had the opportunity to address a group of community leaders and hospital employees at a celebration of the conclusion of the “Sick Kids Can't Wait” capital campaign and the opening of the new eighth floor at the American Family Children's Hospital.

It was an awesome evening: Inspiring, hopeful, and optimistic – all at the same time.

Inspiring. To think this world-class facility was built only after American Family, our great agents and employees, committed to support this place with our money AND our time.

Hopeful. To think thousands of sick kids will live – yes, LIVE – because of our efforts. We are helping provide hope to many families who feel hopeless.

Optimistic. Our communities and our institutions are not perfect, but if we continue to support and work toward positive improvement, positive momentum WILL happen. The grand opening at American Family Children’s Hospital made me once again very optimistic.

At American Family Insurance, we believe our cause is noble: To protect and restore the dreams of our customers. This vision aligns perfectly with the American Family Children's Hospital.

Thanks for everything you've done to help all of the sick kids who can't wait!

American Family Children's Hospital logoEditor’s note: In 2004, American Family Insurance made an initial contribution of $10 million to build the hospital that bears its name. Subsequent corporate, agent and employee contributions raised another $5 million. American Family later contributed $1 million to help launch the Sick Kids Can’t Wait fundraising campaign. Our agents and employees pitched in another $731,000.

Since opening in 2007, American Family Children’s Hospital has treated thousands of ill or injured children from 49 states in a soothing, healing environment. The hospital was ranked among the top 50 children’s hospitals in six medical and surgical specialties in U.S. News and World Report’s 2013-14 Best Children’s Hospitals Guide.

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