Diabetes Drives MMA Athlete Dessi Zaharieva

The taekwondo medal-winner says Type 1 gave her a desire to have no limits in life.



Dessi Zaharieva, a 26-year-old PhD student at York University, is sitting in a lab at school in Ontario, Canada as I ask her questions over the phone in the living room of my apartment. When she says that the Black Sea coastline in Bulgaria is where she feels most at home, I struggle to picture the scene.

“It’s where we would always go to relax as a family when I was growing up,” Zaharieva explains. “The food, the salty sea water, the beautiful sunsets. The Black Sea is my ‘happy place’.”

When Zaharieva was four years old, her parents decided to move the family to Canada. Three years later, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Looking back, she realizes she probably was symptomatic much earlier than that.

“I was always really active, so it took a little bit longer for my parents to realize what was wrong,” she says.

All of the symptoms were there: drinking tons of water, excessive trips to the bathroom, but her parents didn’t have the knowledge to identify the issue. Or the language for that matter. Literally.

“It’s not like you can go to [a Canadian] hospital and get a Bulgarian translator,” she says.

Although she wasn’t fluent in English at the time, she was better off with the language than her parents. Zaharieva was only seven and it was a lot to handle – coming to terms with her illness and trying to facilitate communication about the medical condition with her parents.

“It was a lot for someone in Grade Three, but I actually think [having diabetes] is like a blessing,” Zaharieva reflects. “I’m very in tune with my body.”

As she should be, considering she’s spent the better part of her life studying taekwondo. When she was 16 years old, Zaharieva earned a spot on Team Canada for the World Championships, a biennial athletic competition. For three consecutive seasons, she wore the flag of her adopted country on her back. Her proudest moment was in 2013 when she won a bronze medal in sparring for Team Canada at competitions hosted in Bulgaria.

For many summers before this, Zaharieva had returned to her native country to train with the Bulgarian National Team at Kiten Beach, a stretch of sand that welcomes both tourists and locals. Whether she was sprinting up stairs at seven in the morning or running drills in the water, she felt at home. And when she came back for the 2013 games, she felt like she was representing both Bulgaria and Canada. Up on the winner’s platform that year, Dessi stood on the third place perch while just a few feet away in the spot for silver was a Bulgarian girl with whom she had trained.

“It was really special to have both of us on the podium,” Zaharieva says. “For me, no moment can beat that.”

Dessi_Zaharieva_Kick_300pxLast year, Zaharieva switched to Mixed Martial Arts and she now spends hours rigorously training, sometimes twice a day. She’s had a torn meniscus and two torn ACLs, one of which she sustained in 2010 and the other earlier in 2015. After the 2010 injury, her surgeon said she would never compete again; not only did she power through rehab, she also managed to medal for Team Canada that same year. This is typical of her attitude, says Dr. Mike Riddell, a kinesiology professor who supervises her training.

“She will never give up,” Dr. Riddell says. “She believes in herself and seeks the support of others when needed to help reach her goals.”

And she’s got more than her fair share of goals and projects to complete. Not only is Zaharieva a part of the I Challenge Diabetes team, a group dedicated to testing the limits of people living with diabetes to inspire the diabetes community, she’s also spoken at Medtronic events to medical professionals, parents, and kids with Type 1, sharing her personal experiences living with diabetes and emphasizing the importance of living without limitations.

“I think diabetes drives much of her motivations and successes,” Dr. Riddell says. “She uses it as a constant reminder that much more needs to be discovered to help people.”

In addition to her graduate school course load, Dessi has worked for York University’s Diabetes Sports Camp, a program that Dr. Riddell founded to educate kids and teens with Type 1 to better manage diabetes while still remaining active. Despite her crammed schedule (up at six in the morning and not home until midnight many days), the 26-year-old says she doesn’t like to take breaks and admits that she can’t even enjoy a day off from work.

“The busier I am, the more productive I am. I always feel like I’m not doing enough,” Zaharieva chuckles.

The MMA fighter was recently hired to promote Bayer’s Powered by Accuracy campaign in support of the Contour Next meter. She had already been using the device when Bayer contacted her about supporting the product. As part of this, a camera crew filmed a short video for the campaign at an MMA gym in Toronto:

For now, Zaharieva has three more years of work to do until she gets her PhD. One study she conducted for her master’s thesis at York demonstrated that consuming caffeine has no adverse effects on athletes with Type 1; it was a study she describes as very close to her heart.

In the future she hopes to open her own research lab. It could be in Canada, the United States, or Europe. She also has no intention of slowing down with the MMA training, either. Limits are like a dirty word to her.

“Don’t limit yourself,” Dessi implores; it sounds like her mantra. “Be free to do what you want to do.”

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Travis served as a staff writer for Insulin Nation and Type 2 Nation in 2015. Previously, he was a staff writer for Insight, a high school newspaper, as well as a copywriter for The Emersonian, Emerson's yearbook.