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Overcoming the odds

Willmar woman, 76, has won several swim medals after recovering from near fatal accident

It’s remarkable that Sandra Pierce of Willmar is still winning medals in swimming competitions at age 76, but what’s even more remarkable is that she returned to swimming only 10 months after a life-threatening car accident.

Pierce with the gold medal she won at the State Senior Games in 2013 in Owatonna just 10 months after her life-threatening car accident. Contributed photo

“The highway patrol treated it as a fatality,” she said, managing a smile as though telling she proved him wrong. “I broke 17 bones, including a crushed shoulder. I was cut from head to toe and required three units of blood.”

The accident occurred eight miles east of Willmar on Sept. 23, 2012, when the vehicle Pierce was driving and another vehicle collided at an intersection on a county road. Pierce was airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center and spent 10 days in the ICU, underwent several surgical procedures, and then spent four months at a rehabilitation facility in Willmar.

Still, Pierce maintains a positive attitude about the accident and her myriad of injuries.

“Having all the injuries and limitations wasn’t such a pleasant experience,” said Pierce, who has no recollection of the accident or the early stages of her hospital stay. “But the other choice was not so hot either.”

Determined to maintain the active lifestyle she had prior to the accident, Pierce returned to the pool and eventually swam in a State Senior Games competition in Owatonna in July of 2013. She came away with a gold medal in the 50 freestyle event.

“I’ve always loved the water,” she said. “I swim an hour and a half five days a week at the YMCA.”

In the State Seniors Games this year in St. Cloud, Pierce swam in the 75-79 age group and captured a gold medal in the 50 freestyle, silver medals in the 50 backstroke and 100 freestyle, and bronze medals in the 50 breaststroke and 100 backstroke.

She also earned five medals in 2018; three golds, one silver and one bronze.

Some of the many medals Pierce has won in her senior swimming career. Photo by Scott Thoma

In all, she has earned over 50 medals in 13 years of competitive swimming at senior and masters events. She has also twice qualified for the National Senior Games.

“I’m very competitive, but I can’t beat anyone at nationals,” she said. “They are way too good. So my goal was just to beat someone… and I did.”

Pierce is still hampered by pain and unable to raise her left arm straight over her head because of her shoulder injury from the car accident.

“I’m lucky I have a high pain tolerance,” she said.

Pierce grew up in southern California and worked in food services at a school for eight years before becoming a refrigerator mechanic for 26 years.

“I was working at Sears and they trained me to repair refrigerators,” she said about the position stereotypically held by men. “I also fixed television antennas.”

She eventually followed in her grandfather and parents’ footsteps and went to work for Hughes Aircraft, owned by Howard Hughes, as a refrigerator mechanic.

“I have a picture somewhere with me and Howard Hughes,” she said. “He flew into Culver City and my parents wanted to see him. I was only two years old and my mom was holding me when he walked by. A newspaper photographer took a picture and I’m in the picture with him.”

While in California, Pierce worked with a man named Tom, who was a native of Willmar. The two maintained a close relationship and eventually moved back to Willmar and lived together in 2001. Tom passed away in 2005.

Sandra Pierce playing the Lap Dulcimer, an Appalachian stringed instrument. Photo by Scott Thoma

Sandra and her ex-husband had two daughters. They now also have six grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

After Tom’s passing, Pierce began looking for activities to occupy her time alone in Willmar. She eventually got involved in several groups and activities.

“It’s nice to stay busy,” she said. “It keeps you young.”

Pierce currently plays the lap dulcimer, an Appalachian stringed instrument that Pierce said “looks like a little guitar that swallowed its neck.” She plays with the Coffee House Fiddlers group that entertains seniors once a week at Peace Lutheran Church in New London, and once a month at Glen Oaks Nursing Home in New London.

“I used to listen to them play all the time and eventually I joined the group,” she said. “They offered me a percussion instrument at first, and then I was given the dulcimer to play and I eventually bought one myself.”

She also sings in a musical group called Madd Hatters with four other women. They entertain at senior living facilities in the area and at the Community Center in Willmar.

The Madd Hatters singing group entertains at senior living facilities in the Willmar area. This photo includes (left to right standing) Jan Damhof, Sandra Pierce, Bev Barnes and Margene Landin. Seated is Ira Wallin. Contributed photo

“We wear different hats for different songs and we exchange our hats and really have a good time,” said Pierce, who has been with the group the past two years. “If we sing ‘Doggie in the Window,’ then we wear dog hats, or if we sing ‘It’s a Small World,’ then we wear hats from different countries.”

She is also involved with a “Healthy Together” group that meets once a week in Willmar to discuss senior topics, as well as being a member of Sons or Norway, sing-alongs at Whitney Music in Willmar, and senior dances at the Willmar Community Center.

Pierce was asked if she is proud of her accomplishments and involvements, especially considering that she nearly didn’t recover from a horrific accident.

“I don’t think about it a lot,” she said. “What gives me the most pleasure is when I’m standing in front of a room entertaining people and someone in a wheelchair is tapping their foot to the music. That’s what makes me feel good. I’m just hoping to inspire others. And I’m proud that I can do that.”

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