For 2011 Wharton graduate Rollie Peterkin, pursuing the American dream meant escaping the cage of Wall Street and stepping into a literal cage in South America.
Recruited to wrestle for Penn, Peterkin ended his college wrestling career in a disappointing loss and headed to Wall Street after graduation to become a bond trader. After going on vacation in Peru and reigniting his passion for wrestling, however, he quit his job and moved to Lima, Peru to become a full-time professional MMA cage fighter.
This March, he his book “The Cage: Escaping the American Dream” to detail his adventures and to share his story of perseverance, strength and the search for meaning. “People thought I had gone crazy when I said I was moving to Peru,” Peterkin said. “I had a great job in New York City and I always knew I was going to do finance ... that’s basically why I went to Penn.”
With a job trading investment grade corporate bonds on the proprietary trading desk at the Royal Bank of Canada, Peterkin was on the verge of getting his own portion of the portfolio to manage.
“It’s like I had reached all my goals, and it’s what I had always wanted,” he said. “Part of me would have liked to continue to wrestle, but I had fallen short of my wrestling goals and I had a good job offer waiting for me, so I felt like I had no choice in the matter.”
At Penn, Peterkin wrestled for four years, during which he won over 100 collegiate matches. He was team captain his senior year and a three-time NCAA qualifier. Each of those years, he made it to the Round of 12, meaning that he was among the best 12 collegiate wrestlers in the country. By winning that match, wrestlers automatically place top eight and get a spot on the national podium as an All-American.
“Three years in a row I lost in the very same round, so I was just short of reaching my goal of being an All-American,” he said. “When I lost during my senior year, I was just devastated, and it really hurt me for a long time. I just felt like a huge failure.”
Peterkin wrote in the first chapter of his book that “[he] spent the remainder of [his] senior year wallowing in anger and self-pity. [He] drank a lot, and that sometimes helped. Other times [he] would wake up in the middle of the night, panicked and sweaty, with the image of the last match searing [his] memory.”
After starting his job in New York, Peterkin did not continue to wrestle. “I didn’t even belong to a gym,” he said. “[During those two years] I was sedentary and went out to fancy dinners all the time. I gained a little bit of weight and I missed the sport a lot.”
In 2014, Peterkin went on vacation to Lima, Peru to visit his friend Ben Reiter who had also wrestled at Penn. After graduation, Reiter had gone to Peru to do charitable work and teach English in a small village. He was also training for MMA there as a cage fighter.
“While I was down there I trained with the team a little bit and his coach invited me to come down and fight for them because of my wrestling pedigree,” Peterkin said. “At first I was like, ‘that’s crazy, there’s no way I’m doing that.’”
Yet after returning to New York, Peterkin found it hard to focus and find meaning in his work, writing that “the seed had been planted and I couldn’t seem to shake it” in a piece he wrote for Vice. Peterkin then quit his job and made the move to Peru to the surprise of many of his friends and family.
“My family was not happy with me. They were supportive but not happy,” he said. “It also split my friends down the middle. Some people said ‘this is the coolest thing ever,’ and others were like ‘what are you doing, you’re ruining your life.’”
During his time there, he kept a blog and many people followed it as he posted stories about his professional MMA fights and his undefeated record. After living in Peru for a year, however, Peterkin suffered injuries that prevented him from competing and decided to move to Madrid instead, where he now teaches English to elementary school kids.
These three completely different careers spanning the globe reveal Peterkin’s flexibility and desire for adventure, and he recounts his journey from one extreme to the other in his book “The Cage.”
“I had so many amazing experiences and significant events and [my path] was something no one has really gone through before,” Peterkin said. “I really enjoyed writing posts for my blog so I compiled everything and spent about a year writing and editing my book.”
Peterkin explained that the writing process was a completely new challenge. “I went to Wharton so I didn’t take writing classes beyond the freshman writing seminar, but I was always a big reader and tried to pick up this new skill set,” he said.
“The Cage” is available on Amazon and has received largely positive reviews.
“I’ve had a lot of people message me and say they’re inspired by it and to me that’s the most important thing,” Peterkin said.
Spending the next school year teaching in the Canary Islands, Peterkin doesn’t see himself coming back to the United States anytime soon, but he added that anything could be possible given “life’s crazy twist and turns.”
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