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Reynoldsville Native Pearce Talks Swimming Career, Overcoming COVID Complications, and Pursuit of Career in Medicine

REYNOLDSVILLE, Pa. (D9/EYT) – For many years, Kiersten Pearce was titled as being a standout in the pool, but soon, her title will be PA-C.

(Photos submitted by Kiersten Pearce)

Physician assistant, to be exact, a five-year fast-track program offered by several schools, with Gannon University being one of them. When being recruited out of high school, Gannon made for a perfect fit of high-level swimming while not having to sacrifice another year of school to become a PA.

“I went on three recruiting trips,” Pearce explained. “Gannon had a great atmosphere, but my favorite thing was the way the PA program was laid out as opposed to other schools.”

Becoming a PA was not something she always thought about becoming, as it took a loss close to her to think about starting the journey she is on now. Her late grandmother, Liz Deegan, was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, but she fought for three and a half years with the diagnosis before passing away in 2016.

“I watched her fight and how the medical professionals interacted with her,” explained Pearce. “From those moments, I realized I wanted to be someone who could help those people and who could be there for them.”

Ever since, it has been swimming and studying for the Reynoldsville native who will finish up the entire PA program at Gannon this summer or early fall, depending on when she completes her board examinations. Presently, she is in the clinical rotation portion of her degree, which includes nine, five-week rotations that have taken her all over Central and Western Pennsylvania.

With stops in Erie, DuBois, Titusville, Indiana, Johnsonburg, and Edinboro, her journey has given her experience of working in different areas, settings, and with different populations of people. Through these clinical rotations, she has discovered her biggest passions are women’s health and pulmonology – areas she is hopeful to begin her career full time in after completing all the requirements to practice later this year.

This May will officially mark her as a two-time Gannon University graduate after completing her undergraduate coursework in May 2021. She did not just graduate last May in fact; she graduated Magna Cum Laude while balancing being a collegiate swimmer. It is not a surprise for those who know her as she graduated from DuBois in 2017 Summa Cum Laude.

Unquestionably, it takes some discipline, late nights, and a lot of coffee to make it through the early morning swim practices, classes, and advanced biology and chemistry courses. It was discipline and a push she learned from a young age, as the lessons she has learned from swimming since the age of nine have helped make it possible.

Oddly enough, swimming was not something she even tested out competitively until late in elementary school. When looking for activities to do with her friends, she tried out various sports like soccer and gymnastics before figuring out that swimming was the one she liked the most. It did not take long to fall in love with it or for the practice to pay off, as just a year later; she was already a district qualifier.

A lot of this was thanks to the time Jill Heffner had invested in her at the Reynoldsville pool and even dating back to swimming lessons she had gone through earlier in her life with Heffner as the instructor.

From there, Pearce would rack up many more accolades in the water, including setting her first record at the DuBois YMCA at 13. Several more records would fall during her swimming career, and she would graduate from DuBois with the distinctions of being a four-time letter winner, district qualifier, and state qualifier. The Jefferson County native also broke the Lady Beavers school records in the 200-yard individual medley, 200-yard medley relay, and the 200-yard freestyle relay along the way and went out as a high school senior in 2017 a District 9 champion.

“When I first started swimming, I used to tell my mom (Shelly Pearce) that I wanted to see my name on the record board at DuBois,” said Pearce. “ She just told me to swim fast and have fun.”

For Pearce, she accomplished many of the goals she set out to do since she was nine, and along the way, she met some great coaches who pushed her to reach the college ranks. While it started with Jill Heffner, Barb Brinkley and Jim Lux were crucial in her middle school year of swimming, which prepared her for when DuBois Area coaches Leanne Fuller and Mike Gressler would coach her for four years of high school.

In college, she swam for Darren Suroviec, Jacqueline Michalski, and Katie Cowan who were all critical in helping her improve her technique and overcome nervousness she would experience at the beginning of meets. Cowan, in particular, is who Pearce credits for helping her to remain mentally strong out of the gate in her races. The coaches were supportive of her pursuing a career she was passionate about, but nobody was more supportive over the years than her parents Shelly and Bill in all she’s done.

Her parents took her to countless swimming meets over the years and also were thinking of ways that would help their daughter in the medical field. One way they contributed was by pushing her to gain experience in the field during the summer months and during breaks in college at DuBois Village Personal Care as a floor aide. This helped her work with the elderly population for the first time, a group of people she is most excited about working with today.

As for her swimming career at Gannon, Pearce became a three-time Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) qualifier, as well as a PSAC Scholar-Athlete. However, her senior year competing for the Golden Knights was one that ended much too soon after complications from COVID-19 forced her to step away from swimming and focus on getting back to feeling like her old self.

Pearce was chronically ill from COVID-19 from January till May 2021, with breathing problems that forced her to get her tonsils and adenoids removed. Today, she still has a loss of taste and smell that she hopes will recover someday soon. Despite these health problems, she was able to still graduate on time and stay on track to finish her PA education on time, as well.

“It was really hard on my lungs,” said Pearce. “I couldn’t even walk on a treadmill without it affecting me. It was definitely not safe for me to continue swimming.”

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