Desireé Peterkin: Support After Setbacks

Desireé Peterkin: Support After Setbacks

ON October 27, 2021 by Zwift

Desireé Peterkin knew something wasn’t right. She was riding the same routes she normally did, but she felt exhausted and couldn’t keep up with her group.

She stepped off her bike one day and didn’t get back on until nearly two years later. A health condition knocked her off her feet, and starting over required patience, determination, and a lot of support from others. One place she found that support was on Zwift.

“I made a lot of friends virtually,” says Peterkin. “It was 2019 when I got Zwift, and then COVID-19 hit, and man, it just opened up a new world to me. I really look forward to meeting some of these people in real life.”

She shares her story every now and then, hoping to be a source of inspiration for people who are struggling. At the same time, other Zwifters inspire her, both by offering encouragement and by talking about their own journeys.

“You learn that everybody has a story,” Peterkin says. “Everybody has their own little struggle, hiccup, or whatever. You’re able to be there for each other and encourage each other. When I would have tough times, people let me talk about it. The support was unbelievable.”

Bumps in the Road

Peterkin has loved cycling since she was a little kid. On a bike, she feels free – empowered to leave the problems of life behind, or work through them if she wants.

She took a little break from it when she got a Division I basketball scholarship to Loyola University. After switching from player to referee, she started taking her bike out more often and joining some group rides.

Then, in the spring of 2016, Peterkin started to notice something strange. One ride she would be feeling great, but the next time she did the same route it would exhaust her. Soon the bad days outnumbered the good ones.

“These rides are a struggle, they’re labored, I’m sweating profusely, and everything is so much more work,” recalls Peterkin.

During one group ride, she pulled over to the side of the road and got off the bike, unable to continue. July 27, 2016, would be her last ride for nearly two years.

After several visits to doctors and a hospital, she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. The most common symptoms of Sjögren’s are dry eye and dry mouth, but it can cause lung problems and neurological symptoms, too. It also can go hand-in-hand with other autoimmune disorders, and Peterkin soon developed transverse myelitis – an inflammation of the spinal cord.

Her symptoms worsened to the point that even walking a city block was hard.

“Going from a Division I athlete to this all of a sudden… mourning my old self, it was tough,” she says.

Months of physical therapy, medications, and other treatments began to help her feel better. After taking a prescription steroid, though, her weight had gone up from 180 to 260 pounds.

A friend encouraged her to get active and fit again by going to indoor spin classes. She started out in the back corner of the room, struggling to get through the sessions.

Still, she was determined not to give up. Instructor Esther Collinetti, with her mix of tough love and praise, motivated Peterkin to keep coming back. Others in the class learned about her journey and cheered her on. Slowly, she started moving up the rows, until she was confident enough to ride front and center.

Back in the Saddle

By spring of 2018, Peterkin was ready to get back outside on a bike. She dropped off her beloved Fuji at a bike shop for a tune-up. When she picked it back up, even the test ride around the parking lot was a thrill.

“The only thing I wanted, from the minute I was hospitalized, was to be able to ride my bike again,” says Peterkin. “It just gave me freedom. It was a form of therapy.”

Her first rides back were short, but she worked at it and made steady progress. Then, in 2019, Peterkin bought a smart trainer to keep her riding through the colder months with less daylight. When she tried Zwift, it had her “hook, line, and sinker.”

“Zwift was a lifesaver,” she says.

Thanks to her renewed activity and a keto diet, Peterkin says, she has now lost more weight than she gained. She still needs to manage her Sjögren’s and other health concerns, but she is feeling stronger and fitter.

In fact, Peterkin completed nearly 20 century rides in 2020! More than half of these 100-mile rides were on her trainer, riding Zwift on Saturday mornings with the BMTR (Bear Mountaineers) Flat 100. It became part of a routine that she looks forward to every week in the winter.

“I turn on the TV, I’m watching College GameDay… and I’m talking to my friends that live all over the place, all over this country and the world,” she says.

The BMTR group is based in New York, where she grew up before moving to Baltimore, Maryland. She already knew some of the members from riding with them on visits to New York, but Zwift introduced her to many more.

Zwifters encouraged Peterkin to use Discord voice chat, and soon she was able to hear their voices as she joined them on group rides. Many of her groupmates found each other on Facebook, too. Putting faces and voices to the names onscreen was comforting during the isolation of the early COVID-19 pandemic.

“You just talk about your day and how things are going, and you get to learn about people and their families, and it personalizes it, you know?” Peterkin says. “Zwift has been a blessing to me.”

Help Along the Way

Several years ago, Peterkin joined a cycling club called Major Taylor Iron Riders of NY. She had learned about it through a Facebook group called “The Black Cyclist,” and members invited her to join on her visits to New York. The club is named in honor of Major Taylor, the first black American cycling champion, and the “Iron Riders,” a unit of black bicycle-mounted U.S. Army soldiers formed in 1896.

Peterkin was drawn to the club’s diversity and welcoming spirit. One of her clubmates turned out to be a key support in the first year after her diagnosis.

“They took me in,” she says. “I’ve certainly made a lot of lifelong friends in that club.”

To others who are going through a hard time, Peterkin stresses the importance of a support system. This can include family, friends, and therapy, which she recommends.

“None of us can do this on our own,” she says.

These days, Peterkin works at a middle school as a social-emotional learning support for special needs students. She also works part-time at a bike shop called Patapsco Bicycles, helping others enjoy an activity she loves.

Peterkin hopes the next year will include more in-person group rides, some road races, and maybe some mountain biking and cyclocross. She will have to see how her body feels.

That’s another piece of advice she gives  – when you’ve had a setback, don’t get discouraged by where you think you should be.

“Don’t be afraid to ride your ride,” Peterkin says. “Your competition is within yourself.”