It's hard for me to believe that I've been competing in the Miss America Organization for six years now. Crowns and sashes were never in my plan- in fact, when a family friend reached out and told my mom and I that I should consider competing, I remember laughing.
A pageant? Seriously?
I went and watched one pageant (mostly in an effort to get that family friend to stop bringing it up), and I was blown away. These women were so poised and graceful. They carried themselves with this confidence that could move mountains, the likes of which I had never seen before. They were so articulate and confident when they addressed a full audience on topics they were passionate about. They were ridiculously talented and well-rounded and beautiful... and I wanted all of it.
I told my mom that even if I never got a crown, that's the kind of girl I wanted to be. So, I began competing.
After about a year of competing as a teen, I took some time off. I told people that it was for a few different reasons- adjusting to being a freshman in college, not having enough time, not having a car to even get to the pageants... but in reality, there was one reason: I was terrified. I had just become a 'Miss' instead of a 'Teen' and was realizing that the bar was so much higher. I wasn't ready for a swimsuit, I wasn't ready for controversial and complicated on-stage questions, and I wasn't ready to risk failing in front of countless people.
But, God called me here. And if you've ever felt like God is calling you somewhere you don't want to go, you know that there's no escaping it.
So I started doing the thing! And for a while, things felt so great. Don't get me wrong, it was challenging and humbling in every single way. I feel like I failed in every way I could, but after every pageant, I felt so much stronger. Despite the growing pains, my confidence was growing every single day. And in June of 2019, I was completely taken aback to hear my name called as first runner up to Miss Michigan.
I was on cloud 9 for weeks, and I was filled with a constant optimism and peace that I was exactly where God wanted me.
As the 2020 pageant season started, something frustrating started to happen- at every pageant, I was being called first runner up. And honestly, I didn't think much of it at first, until suddenly I was at my last pageant of the season, and I was still called first runner up.
And just like that, all of the peace of 'knowing I'm exactly where God wants me' vanished. If He wanted me here, why would he close every single door in this direction? It didn't make sense. Going from first runner up at Miss Michigan to not being able to secure a title at a local title felt so embarrassing, and for the girl who's constantly been afraid of letting people see her fail, it was even more so.
As I spent the days following that last pageant eating way too many Little Debbie cakes and mourning the loss of my chance at Miss Michigan, I couldn't help but think back to tenth grade Sarah Dudinetz watching her first pageant and saying, 'Even if I never get a crown, that's the kind of girl I want to be'. I guess God's putting that to the test now, huh?
And that has led me to reflecting on the last six years of interview questions, evening gowns, and hairspray. I realized that the crown was never the 'goal' at all. The goal was everything I became along the way.
I may have grown up a little bit.
I may not have a crown, but here's what I won.
I have the confidence to sit down at a luncheon table full of strangers and speak confidently about myself, my work, and to ask questions about those around me. This has led to countless networking opportunities that never would have been possible otherwise.
I have thick skin. While I've still got a long way to go on this one, I can handle criticism and comments from others with a grace, professionalism, and confidence that most people my age can't.
I have a competitive work ethic and drive, but not because I'm competing against other girls. There's no room for that Toddlers and Tiaras drama here. My pageant career has taught me how to always be better than the girl I was yesterday, and how to support other women along the way.
I learned how to love and take care of myself. We can say 'don't judge a book by its cover', but we all know that taking care of and presenting yourself well can make all the difference. Along with this, everything I learned regarding nutrition, exercise, and healthy eating back when I competed in a swimsuit has proved to be invaluable.
I won the most incredible network a girl could ask for. Whether it's serving on my friend Shelby's non-profit board of directors, or traveling to cheer on Mallory at Miss America with another one of my best friends, Darynn, or watching Sarah and Katie kill it as Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, I feel so ridiculously fortunate to have a network of best friends and resources- especially as I enter the professional world.
I've worked as an advocate for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, the national platform of the Miss America Organization, and as an advocate for blood donation, my own personal platform. I've organized blood drives that have resulted in a total of 88 pints of blood collected, which has the potential to save over 260 lives.
I realized that my voice matters. I've never been one to speak up or pull attention to myself, but competing in this organization has not only helped me stay up-to-date on issues that impact the world around me, but has also provided me with opportunities to practice healthy confrontation in sticking up for my friends or addressing issues with others.
And that's just the tip of the ice berg.
I could say that I'm perfectly content with where I'm at, but the truth is, it hurts so much to know I won't be at Miss Michigan week this year. But I'm doing everything I can to lean in and praise God in the confusion.
For now, I'm just gonna stick to being Sarah Dudinetz, Miss Hedgehog Slippers 2020.