“Extraordinary accomplishments may be achieved by ordinary people taking the extra step. Vanessa immerses us in her journey in which those life lessons of the penultimate step prepare us mentally, physically, and emotionally to succeed in the worthiest of goals: our own!”

Randy Pierce

President, 2020 Vision Quest

Author, See You at the Summit

“It’s not every day you meet someone who reminds you that you can accomplish anything you set your mind on. Vanesa Bucklin is just that person. This book is the inspirational story of a woman who has overcome obstacles to find her own victories time after time. Her story is one of perseverance, determination, heart, and true grit.”

Juli McNeely, LUTCF, CFP, CLU

Past NAIFA National President

“Vanessa shows us that strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. She reveals her most challenging times and the insights and triumphs, both big and small, that come from possessing the right perspective. She proves the power a positive attitude has in the making of a complete life. This book strings lessons through stories and will leave you feeling that you can totally do it, so go for it!”

Michaela F. Scott, MSFS, CFP®, AIF®, RICP®, CHFC, CHSA®, CLU® Investment Advisor Representative, Series 6, Series 63, and Series 7 Strategic Benefits Consultant

“I look at Vanessa and think, “Wow, she has everything going for her.” And then I read her book and really see the determined, candid, brave, and caring person that she is. She has always appeared to know when to dive off the high dive or when to first get a team of advisors before taking a big leap. But now after reading her extraordinary story, I see the strength of her partnering unrelenting discipline with her unyielding belief that we create our own future. This is a remarkable sharing that allows each of us to rethink how we can use Vanessa’s insight to enhance our own journey.”

Micki Hoesly

Past President, MDRT

“A successful leader is someone you would follow even if you didn’t have to. Vanessa leads with a positive attitude, strong athletic prowess, and unshakable confidence. This book highlights her remarkable story and valuable lessons learned in navigating life’s journey of endless twists and turns.” 

Jennifer Borislow

CEO, Borislow Insurance

2012 MDRT President


First, I would like to thank my loving and supportive husband, Tyler. You are an inspiration each and every day, and I am so proud to be your wife. Thank you for always encouraging me and for supporting my dreams. You are the best partner I could ever have in this game of life, and I am so proud of the children we are raising. I love you.

Thank you to my kids, Claire, Nick, and Colette. This book is dedicated to you three beautiful faces. You are the light of my life, and I want you to never ever give up on your dreams. You are my daily inspiration and joy. You are my shining stars!

To my mother and father – thank you for the foundation and opportunity you have given me. Shane, Callie, and I had the greatest childhood a kid could have, and I hope to provide even a sliver of what you gave us to my children. Your courage, strength, and grace shine every day as an example to us all.

Thank you to my beautiful sister, Callie. From the moment you were born, I thought of you as mine. You are my best friend, and I am so proud to call you my sister. I am braver because of you!

To my business partners and friends, Jake and Dick, thank you so much for your belief in me. It was a daunting task, but you were always up to the challenge. I have learned so much from you. You both have a gift for seeing people’s best qualities, and you always give your best self. I am honored to be your partner and friend.

To my beautiful staff, Kiley, Kenzie, and Lacey – you have supported my dreams and ambition each and every day. Thank you for covering for me, protecting me, and reading all my rough drafts. I can hear your reassuring words, “I’ve got you,” over and over, and my heart melts. I am blessed to have each of you in my life.

To my dear friends and former employees, Sondra, Christy, and Connie – I thank you for believing in me and dedication so much of yourself. You have taught me much about living your dreams.

Thank you to Mark and Monty. Your encouragement kept me on the trail to finish this book. I admire you as authors, and I am proud to call you friends. Monty, you were so instrumental in my initial editing, and I cherish our time together.

To my newfound hero, Randy Pierce. Thanks to our recent introduction, you inspire me daily. I will never enjoy the scent of lilacs without thinking of you and your champion journey through adversity, pain, and challenges, where you came out a star. You continue to inspire so many people daily with your winning attitude and by “seeing no obstacles.” Thank you for helping me with this dream. I look forward to meeting you in person as I pursue other dreams.

Michaela, Micki, Jennifer, Juli, and Dianne—thank you for your daily inspiration in the business. You are truly remarkable, and it has been such an honor to work with you. You are all heroes to me.

Irene, we were kismet! In editing the book, I feel you have been hand in hand with me through my entire life’s journey. You were exactly what I needed to push harder and dive deeper. You were the perfect “penultimate step” in my dream of publishing a book. Thank you, my friend!

Kelli Weist, my dearest friend, thank you for always being my hero. You are the best friend, the best mother, and the best girl I have ever known. With your enthusiasm and drive, you have lifted me up to new heights.

To Phyllis P., although not always a direct influence, your spirit is always an underlying and unwavering factor in my daily life. There isn’t a mile I run, where I don’t think of you, and it inspires me to do more and be more. You make this world a better place.

To Kyriakos, my dear friend and colleague from Greece—I can’t thank you enough. You believed in me more than I did. You have given me the opportunity to spread my wings and fly higher than I imagined. You taught me philotimo and changed my life. Without your support and vision, and printing My First Book, I don’t think I would have ever pursued this dream. You were the one who made me believe I had a story to tell.

Finally, I want to thank my baby brother, Shane. I wish so much that you were here to read this book. I can picture your Cheshire cat grin and hear your praise. You taught me so much about living life, cherishing those you love, and proudly being yourself. Every day I wish I could have one more minute with you. I hope I make you proud. I love you. I miss you.


Why do any of us choose to set our focus into the pages of a book? Why do we take the steps into someone else’s story? The reasons are, of course, as varied as the steps we take leading into this anticipated path of exploration, and yet they have at least that detail in common. We are all taking metaphorical steps in an assortment of journeys. We are literary adventurers, each with as personal an approach and destination as the myriad circumstances of our lives develop. At times we may seek entertainment. Sometimes a theme of interest or point of learning is our motivation to begin reading. The Penultimate Step gifted me with a host of learning, from the simplicity of new terms like “philotimo” to new concepts such as being “motivationally gifted.” My mind was engaged throughout and better still days after the first of several readings.

The thoroughness of my enjoyment is evident in the rapt attention garnered in my first reading, which I completed in a single nonstop plunge. I felt the emotional surges of laughter, enthusiasm, hope, discouragement, grief, and triumph along the way. I was so engrossed by the tale that I felt a kindred spirit beside her as she built her business, built her family, and faced the daunting challenges life has in various forms for most of us. We labored together through losses and the deepest grief. We stumbled and surged through these tragedies and triumphs. I celebrated the penultimate and ultimate journey with her and came away better for it.

I entered into the pages knowing very little of Vanessa Bucklin. As a runner and an author I had been asked to review her manuscript and share my reflections. I dove into the pages, quickly becoming captivating by the entirely relatable manner in which she unfolds the tale of a self-described ordinary person elevating to extraordinary success. She is by no means ordinary and the path of her progress encourages all of us to consider the steps we choose in our own journey.

What made The Penultimate Step such a fascinating and captivating excursion for me is the comfortable clarity of the essential steps in Vanessa’s remarkable journey. What makes a person extraordinary? Once again, a myriad of factors, and yet it is the similarities we share in being human in accompaniment with the power to lift ourselves through the frustrations, fears, and failures. Step by determined step she will suss out the meaning in the penultimate with a sequence of anecdotal life experiences. Moment by moment we will discover salient points that brought opportunities forth from otherwise obstacle-laden frustrations. Why would she choose to leave a stable, high-level, successful professional position? How does she find the strength to handle the most terrible of personal tragedies? Where does she find the courage and confidence to take risks? How might any of this apply to our own lives? 

Inspiration at some level brought each of us to Vanessa’s carefully crafted work. There is certainly more than sufficient inspiration in simple admiration of her achievements, personally and professionally, to entertain. Her gentle powers of observation integrated with her carefully chosen personal stories guide us through the individual possibilities within our own lives. It is what we choose to do with the experience of our journey through Vanessa’s story that will most influence our next steps and the places those steps will take us. As I mentioned, Vanessa is no ordinary person and in the tale she suggests the means by which all of us may showcase the extraordinary in our own lives.

In trying to concisely summarize my belief derived from my own excursion through these pages, I find these words come back to me consistently. Extraordinary accomplishments may be achieved by ordinary people making the extra step. Vanessa immerses us in her journey in which those life lessons of the penultimate step prepare us mentally, physically, and emotionally to succeed in the worthiest of goals: our own!

Randy Pierce

President, 2020 VisionQuest

Author, See You at the Summit

Motivational Speaker

Mountaineer and Marathoner


Breathtaking views stretched across fields of hay and ripened grain clear to the Rocky Mountain Front as I rode shotgun in Midnight, my dad’s ’85 GMC pickup. Growing up in rural Montana, it was the scene of my childhood, yet the beauty and magnificence never grew conventional or monotonous.

I could see in the rearview mirror that my eyes were as green as emeralds against the backdrop of golden wheat and blue sky. The window was rolled down, and the soft breeze lifted the wisps of hair that had escaped my neat ponytail. We bounced our way down the dirt road that separated the fields, assessing how soon the harvest might start, a critical decision for every farming family.

In our palpable excitement I had a moment of clarity so vivid it has become part of my soul. I could feel my heart beat faster with anticipation of the days ahead of me. I can remember having a powerful sense of conviction and urgency to capture the opportunities available to me in this life even though I was only an adolescent. I felt empowered to soak in the sun and respond by letting my light radiate strong and bright. It was an illuminating and precious moment for me. It felt as if time stood still and everything was right in the world in that minute.

I was raised in a red, white, and blue little town off I-15 where life was pure and honest. I traveled down that same dirt road in the years that followed, and it would become a beacon for my soul —the same place my roots were planted like those of the grain we grew each year.

Later, I would run miles on that dirt and listen to my breath make cadence with the wind as it rippled through the fields as waves do in the ocean. And I would return to that country road as I developed into a wife and a mother, and again as I established my career. That road would also be a place of solace when I experienced losing someone who helped define my youth and innocence.

I learned through all this that life is made up of a series of the moments of clarity, like the one I had experienced that warm summer day. It was up to me to bravely seize the opportunities, diligently search for answers, and positively respond to my circumstances. I realized that life was always just really up to me.

I share my journey that started on the dusty country road and led me to this point. Step by step, I have traveled over bumps and past some obstacles with my family and career. It is my hope that a small-town girl from Montana, USA, can inspire and encourage you to believe in yourself and courageously take the next step toward your dreams, whatever they may be.



“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson1

The athlete can feel the soft breeze on her face, the sun warming her exposed arms and legs, and she can feel the beat of her heart pounding the blood through her body. She can hear muffled whistles, the starting gun, and the cheers coming from other events on the track that day. On her periphery she can see the crowd, competitors, and surroundings as in a Monet painting with only various blurred colors and presence and no fine detail. She is focused on a single white board.

Her concentration is so complete and so precise after spending hours on her approach in order to reach that single white board at top speed. Her first two steps start slow and prepare her body to reach maximum speed in just fifteen or so steps. The second to last step of the approach, shorter than a normal running stride and the most critical of all steps, allows her to lower her body mass and push her hips forward, all while maintaining high velocity.

For those of you unfamiliar with track and field, I would like to introduce you to the penultimate step. The penultimate step is the second to last step prior to takeoff, particularly in the long jump event. It sets the jumper up for the correct trajectory and is critical in launching the athlete into the jump with purpose and conviction.2

By definition, penultimate is an adjective meaning the next to the last but one in a series of things; second to the last.3 In street speak it takes on the meaning “second to none” or is simply used to describe something utterly appeasing.

My opinion is that the penultimate step is the most critical of all steps. Without the proper second to last step, the athlete has no chance of successfully supporting forward movement and advancement. Without having the preparation and focus in the penultimate step, a person cannot channel forward movement into a successful launch.

There are many penultimate steps in life, some prepared and even rehearsed, others sudden and unexpected. Your penultimate step is seizing opportunities, searching and driving for answers, and reacting and responding positively to your circumstances. Often times it is not the actual launch, the moment on stage, the final product, or the gold medal finish that define you, but it is in your penultimate step and all the moments that build up to your dreams and goals that unlock the real treasure of life.

I was 8 years old when I found myself searching for the surface of the water at the local swimming pool. I remained surprisingly calm. I was convinced that I needed just a few more seconds to find my way. I had taken a big step and had gone headfirst off the high dive with no prior experience. I had seized the opportunity, and I just dove in. It was up to me, and as I would discover throughout my life, it was always just really up to me.

Moments before, I had finally passed my swim test at our local municipal pool, which allowed me to go to the deep end, the “pump house” (where all the cool high school kids would lay out their towels and tan), and the pinnacle of being allowed in the deep end being the diving boards!

I had waited patiently for my favorite lifeguard, Sarah, to go on duty at the station where you attempted your swim test. My plan had been to wait for her in hopes that she would be sensitive to my effort and not focus on my actual swimming ability. The test itself consisted of swimming the crawl stroke three widths of the pool at the testing station, which was just at the rope separating the deep end from the shallow end so that participants could not touch the ground during the test.

I remember hopping out of the water when Sarah got to her post, walking over to her lifeguard stand, and asking if I could try to pass my test. She seemed a little surprised but she had always been positive with me and smiled in agreement. The show began and I hacked my way through the first width of the pool, looking more like I was doing the dog paddle than the crawl stroke. In an attempt to buy myself additional time during the test, I held the edge of the pool as long as I possibly could before turning around to start the next width. Trying to keep my head buried in the water, I imagined myself as a torpedo cutting through the current. The second width was completed! Finally I was on the last stretch; this was the day I would pass to the deep end.

Finishing the final width, I had no breath left and could barely get up and out of the water and walk around the pool back to her lifeguard stand to face my fate. She had compassion and that was, in fact, my lucky day. I had passed. She smiled, and cautioned me to “be careful over there.”

My mother had taken me to swimming lessons every summer for several years, so I knew enough about the crawl stroke to pass my test (or at least find the soft spot in Sarah to pass me), but I had absolutely no business swimming in the deep end. In addition to very limited stroke practice or deep-water swimming, I had never been taught how to dive. I had never even attempted diving off the side of the pool even from a one-foot-on-the-gutter/one-knee-on-the-ground position. But for some reason, I felt like I could easily dive off the high dive board at the deep end. Really, how hard could it be?

Beaming with confidence from just having passed my swim test, I proudly got out of the testing location and marched right over to the other end of the pool to the highest diving board at the Conrad Municipal Pool. It was my day and nothing was going to stand in my way.

There was a short line at the high dive, so I stood patiently, evaluating the techniques of the swimmers ahead of me. Thinking back, I can remember the looks on the faces of the lifeguards on duty that day who all knew me because I had spent hours at the pool. You could see them curiously pondering that I was in line to go off the high dive. To their even further amazement, I didn’t just reluctantly stroll to the end of the board, stand in fear staring at the water, plug my nose, and jump feet first like most kids do their first time off the board. No, not me—not that day. With all my confidence and zest, I marched to the end of the board, pointed my arms in an arrow, and plunged headfirst into the deep end.

Wow! It was the worst belly flop in all of history. I was in so much pain, so disoriented, so out of breath, and so deep in the water that I didn’t even know which way was up.

As I struggled to find the top, the lifeguard on duty at the end of the pool dove in and helped me to the surface. In my mind, there was just no other way to conquer the deep end. My ego was bruised a little—not because it wasn’t a perfect dive (I thought it was near perfect), but because the lifeguard had to jump in to pull me up. I didn’t want all the high school kids to think that I needed any assistance. More importantly, I couldn’t help but think that if only the lifeguard had given me a few more seconds, I would have found my way.

That afternoon, I walked home and proudly shared the story of passing my test and diving off the high dive with my parents. We celebrated my success, and I kept moving forward. This belly flop was part of my growth and the climb. Looking back to my 8-year-old self, I realize that this dive was a penultimate step, one of many in my life. Wholesomely I would mature, develop, and continue to make strides and move forward, step by step, never giving up.

My dive can serve as an example to other fundamental lessons in my life. As a kid, I saw the diving board as an opportunity, not an obligation. Later in life I became a competitive swimmer, lifeguard, and coach; I witnessed many little kids who passed their swim tests but took years to actually dive off the boards. They saw it as a daunting possibility and something they could maybe attempt in the future. I believe that your opportunities shape and unfold by how you perceive them, and the only limits you have are those you impose on yourself.

I could clearly see myself diving headfirst into the deep water off the high diving board that day. Even without prior experience or study, with all my heart I believed that if I just marched up there and went headfirst into the water, I could dive like any of the other swimmers I had seen. My perception was clear and positive, my belief was strong, and any uncertainty wasn’t going to stop me from trying.

Although not as easily identified from the story, determination also played a factor in my dive. I didn’t tell you that it took me multiple attempts that summer to pass my swim test to be allowed in the deep end and diving boards. To an 8-year-old-kid, it felt like a lifetime of asking the lifeguard on duty to test my swimming. Every day I went to the pool, and every day I struggled through the three widths, many times not getting past the first without hanging onto the rope separating the shallow end from the deep end. But I was willing to do what others were not and kept trying because I had a clear vision in my head. For me the test, the deep end, and the diving board were not hindrances, they were an opportunity to triumph.

I was fearlessly determined to pass my test and dive off the high diving board, and even after getting in the peculiar situation of a near-drowning in the deep end after a belly flop disoriented and winded me, I continued to be fearlessly determined to find my way to the surface, hold back my tears of pain, and brightly smile at everyone watching. I was resolute and daring, and I did it!

In this book I will share my journey through the stages of life, as I learned many lessons and sought my truth. I am a simple girl raised as a farmer’s daughter in rural Montana. I am not rich, famous, or extraordinary in any way, but I have worked hard, been brave and determined, and have had a positive perspective along the way. These same qualities are free and available to anyone who desires success. And if I can accomplish successes as a wife, mother, runner, and business owner, I believe you can effectively penultimate step into your dreams as well.