Fifth and Final, That’s a Wrap

Hang on tight, work hard, embrace the moment, and trust in God’s timing.

And in what seems like the blink of an eye my seven year journey within the Miss America Organization is complete.  I am so incredibly honored to have finished as First  Runner-Up to our new Miss Wisconsin 2017, McKenna Collins and have won the Overall Evening Gown Award this year at Miss Wisconsin.  As I reflect on this experience I ask myself, how do I conceptualize seven years?  How does one sum up an elongated opportunity that has changed their life for the better?  Here goes nothing…

I started competing as a senior in high school with a desire to dance; to perform on stage and have fun.  At that time I had no idea the impact the Miss America Organization would have on my life.  At that time, I didn’t fully understand the scholarship opportunities that came with the job of a titleholder or just how desperately I would need those funds to help guide me through college.  At that time, I didn’t know the successes that God had in store for me and the frustrating lessons he would test my determination and compassion with; but as I look back on every experience I now know all those pursuits entailed intended purpose on His behalf.I competed in three local pageants before winning my first title on my fourth attempt as a sophomore in college.  That job, Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest 2012 lifted me up in a time of emotional disparity and struggle.  It surrounded me with caring people in the community that motivated me and showed me the correct career path I was intended to follow.  I then was blessed with the titles of Miss Seven Rivers and Miss Madison Capital-City as I continued to set high goals for myself and worked to positively impact the communities I served through my platform and volunteerism.  Over the course of those first few years, this program pushed me out of my comfort zone (well the minimal one that was there) and enabled me to soar to new heights I didn’t know were possible.  I placed as a Top 11 Semi-Finalist those first few years as I navigated myself through college and worked to discover my true and without even knowing in retrospect what was happening before my eyes.The title of Miss Harbor Cities 2016 changed my life in various ways, unique to what I’d experienced in the past.  I was finally at a point where I really grasped what the position of Miss Wisconsin entailed and knew that I possessed the necessary qualities to take on the job and do it justice. Jenny, Danielle, and Abbey, my directors held me accountable for my rehearsals, challenged me through countless interview practices, and allowed me to showcase who “Tianna Vanderhei” was.  After finally placing in the Top 5 and winning Overall Interview at Miss Wisconsin 2016, I knew I couldn’t step away without giving it one final shot.

Winning Miss Badgerland at the Miss Wisconsin Sweeps competition in late April granted me one, fifth and final chance to vie for the job of Miss Wisconsin.  With less time than I ever had to prepare in the past, I focused diligently on exercising, eating healthy, drilling interview questions, and getting wardrobe items finalized around my full-time career as a Multi-Media Journalist (which trust me isn’t easy).  I made a number of school appearances in the less than two months before Miss Wisconsin, held our 3rd Annual CMN Hospitals garage sale (and raised $900 for the kids), and situated my life as if I wasn’t returning to La Crosse.  A great deal of success starts from within, it stems from envisioning your dreams and believing in your own potential.  In fact, on autograph cards to kids I often write, “Believe in the power of your dreams!  You can be anything and do anything you wish!”  Because let’s be honest, sometimes we all need a little extra encouragement.  Before I knew it, finals night arrived and I was an anxious, hot mess.  I took a brief nap before we left the hotel for the auditorium and LOTS of deep breaths.  At that point I told myself it was all in God’s hands and it truly was.  I felt content and was hopeful of making Top 11 for the fifth consecutive year, with an opportunity to compete again in every phase of competition and for my family and friends to watch.

I was called ninth.  My heart still dropped when I heard my name and I rushed to the center of the stage to thank the judges and join the other semi-finalists; hugging each and every one of them as I made my way to the end of the line.  I took each phase of competition as it came on Saturday evening, focusing on strutting my stuff and having fun in swimsuit before transitioning my mindset to talent.  I’ve danced since I was five and will tell you I have NEVER danced the way I performed on finals night.  My turns were spot on (no pun intended), my moves were strong and fluid, and my emotional presentation was projected straight from my heart; I left every ounce of passion I had on that stage.  In fact, I started crying as I bowed on stage and gracefully ran off to the tan stage area gasping for air with a huge smile across my face.  Never, in all my years of dancing have I ever performed the way I did that night and for that I am thankful.Intermission came and passed and evening gown flew by and suddenly they were calling names for the Top 5 Finalists.  My heart was racing, just praying for my name and then I heard it.  My thoughts in that moment?  “Breathe, focus on the on-stage question, your heel is tangled up in your gown…untangle your gown! Smile!”

I was asked what the worst kind of discrimination is, an open ended question.  I talked about how with tensions being so high in our country it’s important to respect others values, morals, and viewpoints.  At a time when there is an intense political divide and we tend to see things as black and white, people need to realize there is grey area; stressing that we need to not discriminate against others views but rather appreciate their perspectives.  I felt at ease about my answer and the conversational aspect of how I responded to it; to not only the judges, but the audience as well.

Then, the awards came.  I’ll be honest as soon as April Haldeman was called as 4th Runner-Up and I heard Erin O’Brien’s name for 3rd Runner-Up I don’t remember much else.  I had to ask someone who was 2nd Runner-Up after the fact because I stood their spaced out praying.  Seven years.  It was a dream of mine for seven years, building consistently with each experience, title, and relationship I made.  It all culminated to that one moment in time, standing on that stage hand in hand with McKenna who just so happened to be my roommate that entire week in Oshkosh.And then, I heard “Miss Badgerland, Tianna Vanderhei.”  Disappointment, sadness, and frustration consumed me as I watched McKenna be crowned Miss Wisconsin 2017 and walk the runway.

I also felt an immense amount of gratitude, accomplishment, and optimism-knowing full heartedly that God has something greater in store for me.

There’s so many people that have positively impacted my journey and quite frankly my life over this elongated experience and I’m beyond lucky to have so many generous, compassionate, and supportive people in my life.Thank you to my roommate, dance drill sergeant, and cheerleader, Liv Mercer.  We did this together!  Thank you for helping me with interview, watching me practice walking patterns while you recorded and were adamant about me doing everything over and over again.  Mentally and emotionally you have been my rock this year; I couldn’t have gotten this far without you.  I’m so blessed to have you and your family in my life.Thank you to Ken and Deb Morrall and Caitlin Machol for pushing me even further out of my comfort zone all while encouraging me to embrace my true self.  You helped me envision myself on tha Miss America stage, encouraging me to see the picture than what was in front of me in Oshkosh; which in turn expanded my level of compete.  Thank you for your selfless devotion to this program.  All three of you (Caitlin not pictured but certainly present in spirit and preparations all the way from LA) have and with no doubt will continue to impact young women’s lives for the better.  Crown or no crown, you are now a part of my life-there’s no getting rid of me!Thank you to Lisa Horman and Amy Ryan, my very first directors when I was honored with the life-changing job of Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest.  We were rookies together and I’d say we did a pretty great job of tackling that year as a team!  Thank you to Abby Ryan, my Miss Seven Rivers director for your devotion to this program long after your days as a contestant concluded.  You make a difference in so many young women’s lives and it is sincerely appreciated.  Ron and Joe, my fabulous Madison Capital-City directors, you two carry a bright light with you that shines into all those you come in contact with.  Thank you for your years of guidance, laughs, and encouragement of not only your titleholders but any women who reach out to you.

Joel and Marilyn, your generosity and drive to help people further their educational aspirations is astonishing.  Thank you for always cheering me on and helping me, I received countless compliments on my new talent costume and felt incredible in it.  Love you both!PROST to my incredible Oktoberfest Royal Family (that includes my 2012 family and all those who have come before us and succeeded us).  I cried twice during the week in Oshkosh, once Saturday afternoon at rehearsal and Saturday evening before I left my hotel for the show when I received a video of my Festmaster, Brad Sturm along with a number of family members and grenadiers saluting me with an Ein Prosit.  You all came into my life at a very difficult time for me and uplifted me mentally and emotionally.  The best part?  Once a part of Oktoberfest, always a part of Oktoberfest.  It’s no surprise the support of the La Crosse community is unmatched, but there’s nothing like the love and encouragement fest provides.  Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for all that you do and for devoting yourselves to the community and the people within it.

Courtney Pelot, my forever Miss Wisconsin-if I had to determine the best thing I’ve taken away from this program it’s without a doubt the friendships I’ve made; especially you.  Late nights in my hotel room during Miss Wisconsin week 2016 turned into a wonderful bond between us.  I am extremely proud of you and all you’ve accomplished this year and am ecstatic I was able to see you representing our state in Atlantic City.  Time to just be Court and Tia, AKA Collectivo Coffee dates on State Street, copious amounts of Rosé, and Badger Football game day…bring it on!To my family…

“Family isn’t defined only by last names and genetic ties; it’s defined by commitment and love.  It means showing up when they need you the most. It means having each other’s backs.  It means loving one another in their darkest moments and times of defeat.  It means never giving up on one another.”

I don’t think any of us knew just how deep we were getting into the Miss America Organization when Morgan first started competing in the fall of 2007, but after 10 years I’d say mom, dad, Ridge, and Reece have a firm grasp of this scholarship program and the benefits it reaps.  To my grandparents, aunts, uncle, cousins, and family friends-you have no idea how much it means to me to have you there.  Thank you for your encouragement over the years, I love you all.

Ridge and Reece, you are without a doubt one of the greatest blessings in my life and in recent years have become two of my best friends.  Your maturity and selfless mentality constantly astonishes me.  Thank you for sitting through thirteen pageants (keep in mind that’s not counting Morgan’s competitions), cheering loudly, and giving the best hugs in moments when I’ve needed that supportive presence more than you know.  I love you both so much.Dad, I know how difficult it was at times to watch local and state pageants because of just how caring you are.  Anyone who knows you knows you wear your heart on your sleeve and that there’s a lot of emotions behind that sarcastic front.  I remember you saying to me one day, “Obviously I want you to do well, you’re my daughter, but I get so close with these young women and learn their stories and want them all to do well.”  I think that statement is a true representation of this experience as a whole and the people we’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way.  From overlooking charges for dresses on your credit card, to heartfelt talks, to anxiously awaiting to hear my name as you sat on the edge of your seat in the audience, you’ve endured a full spectrum of emotions watching me compete.  Thank you for being a constant in my life, for teaching me not to take successes and obstacles too seriously, and for believing in me.  I love you.Morgan, what began with your desire to serve Wisconsin Rapids, fueled a fire within me to get involved with the MAO.  Despite arguing as siblings typically do and stressing that we are more unalike than alike, we found common ground and dreams within this process.  I know you wanted this just as badly, if not more (if that’s actually possible) than I did and it breaks your heart to watch your little sister’s dream dissipate and not be able to do anything about it; but it’s okay.  We’ve both achieved a lot thanks to this program and gained a great deal of scholarship money for school (#winning).  We, together have left an imprint on our communities that we’ve represented, the state, and this program and heck we should be proud of that.  I’ve been singing and dancing by your side since 1993 and I have no plans to stop any time soon!  This may be the end of this chapter, but we have plenty of other ones to look forward to like obtaining your new title, “Mrs.” in August.

Mom, I know we didn’t want it to end this way.  I was really hoping for more long car rides across the state with the best co-pilot a woman could ask for (in the Miss Wisconsin mobile of course), but as fate would have it…God laughed at our plans.  Nothing has tested my mental, physical, and emotional strengths or pushed me out of my comfort zone more than being involved in this program.  You have been ready at the drop of a hat to assist me with whatever I needed: to buy a new outfit for an appearance or a rather pricey gown for competition, to get me a water, pick up coffee, or purchase adhesive bras during Miss Wisconsin week when I ran into wardrobe issues, you name it!  You woke up at the crack of dawn some mornings to accompany me to appearances and never stopped smiling.  Long days filled with excessive trips to Starbucks and Marcel the Shell pep talks that left us laughing so hard we cried have fostered some of my fondest memories.  It may not have been in the greater plans for me to be Miss Wisconsin, however, this program has brought me closer to the people in my life that mean the most and strengthened our mother, daughter relationship immensely.  To my look alike, role model, and best friend –  love you more than I can ever express to you in words or actions and I’m very appreciative of all that you do not only for me, but for our family and others.  Here’s to conjuring up my next goal in life and fearlessly chasing after it together.  XOI am humbled to be named 1st Runner-Up to our poised, accomplished, and determined Miss Wisconsin 2017, McKenna Collins and look forward to seeing what things she achieves during her year of service.  Now McKenna, go win Miss America girl!  After all, it’s happened before!  But in all seriousness, back to my question…how does one conceptualize seven years?  I find ease in my firm belief that everything happens for a reason and timing is everything.  This is by no means a loss, but an exceptional lesson that cultivated over that lengthy time frame.  I find fulfillment in all the amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and the relationships that will last for many, many years to come.  Thank you to everyone who has believed in me, offered kind words, or affected my journey in some facet, without you none of this would’ve been possible.

Much love,

Just Tianna


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