At the age of 16, Lily Peck was put on an airplane headed for Los Angeles, California, to participate in a three-week cross-country bicycle ride that ended in Bloomington, Indiana.
So beginning an educational track to become a genetic researcher with the goal of curing pediatric cancer does not seem so daunting for Shelbyville High School’s valedictorian.
Peck intertwined details of one particularly long leg of that 2017 ride into her commencement speech Saturday at William L. Garrett Gymnasium. But there was so much more to that trip, and the one she completed in 2018 and the one she is about to embark on later this month.
“There are so many things I’ve learned over the course of the trip,” said Peck. “When I first went on it I was 16 and I had never been away from my parents that long and never really lived on my own. So going away with strangers for a three-week long trip was awesome.”
Peck was Shelbyville’s No. 1 ranked student academically since 8th grade. She’s been riding competitively in different disciplines even longer.
“I started cycling in sixth grade and I first started racing at the end of sixth grade,” she explained.
Peck competes in road races, mountain bike events and cyclo-cross. Her father, Ty, was a competitive racer for years and his only child was typically there to assist with preparations and watch. And when he decided to step back from racing, Lily saw an opportunity to step up.
“Being the annoying child that I was, I said I will start racing now. We’re not done with this yet,” she said.
On May 1, 2013, Peck won her first mountain bike race, although she admitted she had no idea she had crossed the finish line. The date sticks in her head because it was her mom’s birthday.
“We made my mom, on her birthday, come to this poor mountain bike race in the middle of nowhere,” said Peck. “There were only two or three other girls in the race. I remember coming to the finish line and I had no clue how the race worked so I was like, ‘Am I done yet or do I do another lap?’”
Peck found she had natural talent for racing and combined it with an unrelenting pursuit of not being labeled “good for a girl.” She has risen to the highest level of racing just short of being a professional, and is a certified professional in cyclo-cross, a unique sport that is competed on outdoor courses with obstacles that force riders to dismount and carry their bikes to the next part of the course.
“I’ve got my pro license. I’ve done some pro races. I’m not a pro but I ride with them,” she said.
Peck has competed all over the Ohio Valley Region and ventured further for national competitions. Through her riding, she learned of a cross-country summer ride. Despite missing the 2017 registration deadline, Peck’s father was able to get her into the event. With a bike loaded onto a box truck headed for the West Coast, Ty and Julie Peck trusted their only child to have a great learning experience – and come home safely.
“Because it was so last minute, I knew one person on the trip and I’ve known her for awhile and she didn’t like me that much,” said Peck with a laugh. “Basically, I had no friends on the trip. I flew out to Los Angeles, they threw our bikes at us and basically said, ‘Go ride home.’”
The event was more organized than that. Stages were set up for daily rides with a place to sleep at night already secured.
“We would ride 100 to 150 miles per day. Typically, we would be in groups of 7-8 people. We would ride place to place. We usually slept on church floors in sleeping bags,” she said.
Glamorous it was not. Unforgettable? Most assuredly.
“Monument Valley at sunrise,” responded Peck when asked about her favorite moments of the trip. “That’s one of the moments that was surreal. Right as we hit Monument Valley (in Arizona), the sun starts coming up behind all the rock formations. We were somewhere in the middle of Arizona.”
But, as it turns out, that somewhere was a memorable destination in the middle of nowhere.
“It’s right by the place where Forrest Gump turns around in the movie when he is running across the country and he stops and turns around,” said Peck. “We passed the sign where he turned around.”
In 2018, Peck completed the “full” cross-country trek by riding from Bloomington up to New York City and, eventually, Niagara Falls.
“We were in Washington D.C. on July 4. That was the coolest thing,” she recalled. “We had a riding tour of Arlington and all that the day before. Being there on July 4 was the most patriotic thing I’ve ever seen.”
That trip also included riding through Philadelphia and New York City.
“We rode our bikes all around New York City,” she said. “Everywhere in Manhattan ... the Staten Island Ferry, Times Square, the Twin Towers memorial ... we did about everything in New York City, we even rode across the Brooklyn Bridge. We saw all of New York City, almost got hit by 20 cars – it was so fun.”
Later this month, she will fly to Tucson, Arizona, for a ride north to Helena, Montana, that will include two passes across the Continental Divide.
“On that trip, we’re riding through eight national parks,” she said.
That is not Peck’s only journey this summer. Once she returns from Montana, she will re-pack and head to Fargo, North Dakota, for a National Latin Convention. By the time she arrives on campus at Purdue University for the fall semester, doing little more than classwork will be a welcome break.
Purdue was always a top choice in part because she believed engineering was in her future. But the opportunity to participate two years ago in a program called Molecular Medicine in Action changed her mind.
“It was 50 students from around the state that got selected,” she said. “We got to work in IUPUI hospitals in research. We got to go around in like 15 different labs which was so cool. I had already thought about genetics and I really wanted to do something with stem cells, which causes a lot of diseases like cancer. When we were up there, they talked about the pediatric (component) and how there was a lot less research done for the pediatric area than the adult area. So having a field that specific swerved me into the pediatric area where there are less people working so I feel like there will be a lot more job opportunities. That, and I really like the idea of working with children.”
Being Shelbyville’s valedictorian of a graduating class that topped 250 students did not come easy, though. Once she knew she was ranked No. 1, it remained her goal to stay on top.
“Our first quarter, we get our grades and I was No. 1 and I was kind of shocked by it,” she said. “Over the years, it definitely became way more of a goal. I’ve already been it this long ... I’m already it and I don’t want to lose it. It was definitely a goal throughout the whole thing, just challenging myself.
“There were a lot of late nights doing AP homework at 4 a.m. to get it done. I really like learning and education is something I’ve really enjoyed over the years. And since I’ve enjoyed it, it was less difficult for me even though it was very hard sometimes.”
Peck was active in Varsity Quiz League, Spell Bowl, Math Academic Team, Student Council, Latin Club and the National Honor Society at Shelbyville High School. Her academic status also bestowed the honor of being Lady Mayor at this year’s May Festival.
And she was Shelbyville’s nomination to the 2019 Indiana Academic All-Stars, a program of the Indiana Association of School Principals. From a field of 265 nominees, 40 were selected Indiana Academic All Stars. Another 50, including Peck, were chosen as Regional Academic All-Stars.