WINSTON-SALEM - When Sierra Collins was a fourth grader at Elkin Elementary School, she was asked to make a Christmas wish ornament.
While most of the students in her class listed material things, Sierra’s wish was more complicated and direct - a swimming Olympic gold medal.
“After seeing that, I knew that me and her dad were going to do everything in our power to help her accomplish this goal,” said her mother, Debbie.
The lofty wish wasn’t too improbable, as Sierra was already an accomplished swimmer at that age. Before her fifth birthday, she was hauling nearly 40 minutes to the old YMCA in Wilkesboro from her home in Ronda for swim lessons.
“The process was challenging to say the least,” Debbie said. “Not the swim aspect, but trying to get her really long hair dry again before taking her back out into the cold for the drive home.
“But I remember the instructor commenting on on how well she was doing and how quickly she learned. ‘A natural.’ she said.”
Sierra then joined Elkin’s decorated summer league team, the Wet Lightning, with her older sister, Brittany. Competing as an U6 swimmer, her wins didn’t score any points for the team, but being a part of that team was special, playing a pivotal role in her development in the love of swimming, according to her mother.
Wanting to swim year-round against stiffer competition, Sierra joined the Piedmont Aquatic Club (PAC) in Pilot Mountain. Training with future high school stars and collegiate swimmers like Laken Reynolds, Sarah Neaves, Lauren Singleton, Sarah Singelton, Bethany Eaton and Cory Eaton, Sierra was able to learn from the top area swimmers, while “truly growing as a swimmer.”
Sierra continued to move up the swimming ranks, joining Elkin Middle School’s newly-founded swim squad. She helped the Elks to winning seasons against Surry County schools.
But the swimmer really began to shine when she hit the pool at the high school level.
The Lady Elks swam to back-to-back Northwest Conference championships during Sierra’s freshman and sophomore campaigns, including a relay team silver medal at the 1A North Carolina High School Athletic Association State Championships.
Wanting a tougher challenge in the pool and in the classroom, Sierra transferred to Salem Academy, an all-girls preparatory school down the road in Winston-Salem.
“[Transferring] was absolutely the best possible move for me,” she said.
With her move to Salem Academy, Sierra was able to swim year-round with the Sea Dragons at the Gateway YMCA. She decided to board at the school to fully commit to her studies and swimming.
Under the tutelage of new head coach Alex Black — a former collegiate swimmer at Texas and Southern Methodist University — Sierra was “rejuvenated” in her love of the sport, her mother noted.
She rededicated herself to swimming, and it paid off in her first year at Salem.
Sierra promptly shattered 10 school records, including setting seven individual marks during her junior year before shining at the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association. She finished 10th in 100 yard freestyle and 14th in the 200 individual medley at the event.
Coming back even stronger for her senior year, Sierra finally reached the podium at states, capping her impressive high school career with two bronze medals in the 100 and 50 yard freestyle.
Sierra earned recognition during her two seasons at Salem, garnering All-Triad Athletic Conference both years.
While the wish of capturing Olympic gold is still a few years out, Sierra took another step towards her ultimate goal by securing her swimming future at the collegiate level.
The recent graduate landed a presidential academic and athletic scholarship to Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., where she will swim for the Yellow Jackets. She also had offers from Lenoir-Rhyne University in nearby Hickory, Wittenberg University in Ohio and Rollins College in Florida.
Reach Matthew Gorry at 835-1513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.