Lynda Leopold wearing medals

Victory Laps
Story 87

By Kirsten Cutler

Lynda Leopold is an open book, but there’s one question she can’t answer: What do you want to be when you grow up?

“The answer to this is still changing, because I don't consider myself a grownup yet,” Lynda says. “My path has taken a lot of different directions.” One of those directions changed the course of her life forever. At 73, Lynda still remembers it vividly.

Ruskin Heights Tornado
Ruskin Heights Tornado (courtesy:

“On May 20, 1957, my mom, my brother and I were living in a suburb of Kansas City, and there was a tornado,” Lynda recalls. “It picked me up, carried me about a quarter of a mile, and when it set me down, it didn't do it very gently.”

"There was nothing left of our house. Absolutely nothing.”

The tornado that Lynda survived was one of the most powerful ever recorded at the time. “It picked me up inside the house,” Lynda says. “I remember that distinctly, until I hit an immovable object and got a concussion. There was nothing left of our house. Absolutely nothing.”

Lynda lost her mom and her brother in the tornado, and her injuries were extensive. “I broke my left femur and my right elbow, I had a 2x4 impaled in my right knee, and I had an open fracture dislocation of my right hip,” Lynda says. “Surgeons at the time wanted to do an above the hip amputation, but thankfully, my dad said no. Fortunately, my face was mostly saved from the trauma, and it's been a journey since then.”

That journey – during which she also cultivated a career in recreation and education – has taken Lynda through countless doctor’s visits, medical interventions and hospital stays. Leading specialists around the country tried their best to restore Lynda’s mobility. “Everybody used to say, 'Well, I can fix this,' but they couldn’t,” Lynda recalls.

Lynda Leopold and Dr. Merritt

A long-awaited breakthrough arrived when one of Lynda’s doctors connected her with Dr. Phil Merritt at Adventist Health Glendale. “Dr. Merritt has basically put me back together,” Lynda says. “He's been a miracle worker, and it's been a 31-year journey with him.”

Those 31 years have been full of miracles for Lynda. Six years ago, while she was getting ready for one of her surgeries with Dr. Merritt, the medical team discovered a thoracic aortic aneurysm that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The team at Adventist Health Glendale, led by Dr. Armin Kiankhooy, performed surgery to replace her aorta.

“The path that led me [here] wasn't by chance,” Lynda says. “I'm firmly convinced of that and so is Dr. Merritt. There was a higher power that was leading us both in this very good collision course.”

Lynda Leopold with medals

After 51 surgeries – the last 10 with Dr. Merritt – Lynda still marvels at the ease of everyday tasks like tying her shoe. But a new dream has put her body in motion like never before. Lynda has always loved water, and in 2007, she discovered lap swimming while doing rehabilitation in the pool.

“After I had my aortic aneurysm repair,” Lynda shares, “I said to myself, ‘You know, you need to start ticking some of these things off your bucket list,’ and one thing on my bucket list was to medal at a swim meet.” The week before turning 70, Lynda swam – and medaled – in her first swim meet.

“I compete with able-bodied swimmers. I compete against former Olympians, former Olympic coaches, people who've learned to swim in the last year,” she says. “I mean, I generally come in last, but I've resigned myself to that.”

"There was a higher power that was leading us both in this very good collision course.”
Lynda Leopold and "Mighty Mo" Kornfeld
Lynda Leopold and "Mighty Mo" Kornfeld

In 2019, Lynda won a medal at the U.S. Masters Long Course National Championships and was invited to join the Rose Bowl Masters swim team by a swimming legend. “Maurine ‘Mighty Mo’ Kornfeld is in the International Swimming Hall of Fame and has since become a very good friend of mine,” Lynda says. “We talk several times a week, and she holds dozens of national and world records. In November she celebrated her 100th birthday.”

Along with new friends, Lynda is swimming victory laps – for her victories over tragedy, and for what lies ahead.

“A student once asked me, ‘If you could go back and have the tornado not happen, would you?’” Lynda says. “No, I wouldn't change it, because I wouldn't be who I am today, and I'm happy with who I am today.”