When Mikayla Holmgren applied for the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, she submitted a lengthy résumé that highlighted her past pageant experience, her status as a triple-threat athlete and her work as a mentor for other young women like her.

The 22-year-old has Down syndrome, something that pageant directors had not seen before in a contestant.

“Mikayla is a trailblazer,” said Denise Wallace, executive co-director of the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, which is part of the Miss Universe Organization.

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When Holmgren takes the stage later this year, she will be the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in the state pageant, and as far as pageant officials know, the first in the country.

Her participation reflects the new strides toward body acceptance and more diverse beauty ideals that are being made not only in pageants, but on fashion runways and television. Late last year, a 19-year-old St. Cloud, Minn. woman became the first person to compete in the same Minnesota pageant wearing a hijab and burkini. In February, designers hired people with disabilities to model their clothes at New York Fashion Week.

Society’s traditional view of what’s beautiful is changing, pageant insiders say.

“I’m ready for this,” Holmgren said recently after practicing in a dance studio on the Bethel University campus in Arden Hills, Minn., where she is a student. “When I’m performing on stage, I just want people to see me.”

Indeed, pageant directors say they saw more of Holmgren’s talents, goals and self-confidence than they saw of her disability. They accepted her application without hesitation.

“To have women from all walks of life truly be represented on stage shows that pageants are accessible for all and that beauty isn’t a box that we can fit in,” said Jordan Buckellew, the director of Minnesota Miss Amazing, a pageant for girls and women with disabilities. “We’re stepping away from the ‘Miss Congeniality’ vibe where everyone has blond hair and blue eyes. That’s not what we accept or define as beauty anymore.”

Holmgren was crowned Minnesota Junior Miss Amazing in 2015 and went on to represent the state in the national Junior Miss Amazing pageant in Los Angeles.

No stranger to the stage

From the neonatal intensive care unit to the glitzy world of pageants, Holmgren has always been determined to prove her disability doesn’t define her.

Born six weeks early with Down syndrome and without an esophagus, a condition that required surgery, Holmgren has always been a “go-getter” who has never been defined by her disability, said her mother, Sandi Holmgren.

“At first you’re handed this child and the doctors are telling you she may never talk and she may never walk,” Sandi Holmgren said. “You’re thinking, ‘What does her future hold?’ She’s achieved more than I ever dreamed of.”

Holmgren is no stranger to the stage. She’s been dancing since she was 6, when her parents signed her up for classes in her hometown of Marine on St. Croix, Minn.

“From the start, my husband and I decided that she’s a child first and the Down syndrome is secondary,” Sandi Holmgren said. “We never said that she can’t do this because she has Down syndrome; instead we asked, ‘Why not?'”

Holmgren competes solo and with the dance team at Bethel University, where she’s in her first year of a two-year postsecondary program for students with intellectual disabilities.

She choreographs most of her own dances, which are typically modern in style. She moves gracefully, doing back bends, jumps and the splits to her favorite music.

“I like to dance for people because it brightens their day,” Holmgren said. “Down syndrome means I have something special. I can warm hearts.”

‘I have to wear a swimsuit’

While Holmgren won’t get the chance to perform a dance routine at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant in November (there’s no talent category), she’ll be able to talk about her passion for dancing during the interview portion, which she’s been practicing with her advisers at Bethel.

What else does a young woman need to do to prepare for a pageant?

“I have to practice walking in high heels,” Holmgren said. “I’m working out a lot to get my body in shape. I have to wear a swimsuit.”

With no nervousness detected in her voice about donning a swimsuit and heels, Holmgren also said she hopes that by competing in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant she will help change the way that society views disabilities and the notion of beauty.

“I want the whole world to see that I can do things that are hard and that people with Down syndrome are beautiful and talented,” she said.

Although Wallace said that the Miss Minnesota USA pageant has always valued inclusion and diversity, what’s changed is that more women with different backgrounds want to participate.

“What is amazing and beautiful about this is the fact that women are finally seeing representations of themselves in this capacity,” Wallace said. “It makes the next woman feel like they can do that, too.”

If Holmgren wins Miss Minnesota USA in November, she would go on to compete in the Miss USA competition. The winner of that goes on to Miss Universe.

© 2017 the Star Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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