Hockey skates: check. Combat boots: check. Rhinestone tiara: check.
A peek inside Tara Wheelers closet reveals hockey skates and combat boots alongside the stilettos she wore when she was crowned Miss Virginia 2008 at the Roanoke Convention Center Saturday nght.
Representing Arlington, the 24-year-old Wheeler won $16,000 in scholarship money and the coveted crown she’ll wear while representing the Old Dominion in the Miss America Pageant next January.
Its still all so new to me, said Wheeler as she cheerily greeted star-struck onlookers on the streets of Old Town just days after she was crowned. Its such an unbelievable feeling.
The brunette beauty is a self-described Army brat, having moved across the country several times before her family settled in Woodbridge, where she was a cheerleader and 2002 graduate of Gar-Field High School.
But unlike the other cheerleaders, when Wheeler put down her pompoms, she picked up a hockey stick and played goalie for the mens hockey team. She remembers vividly having to change for games in lobby restrooms because there were no dressing rooms for women.
Ive been playing hockey since about the third grade, when we lived in Massachusetts, Wheeler said. My dad took me to see The Mighty Ducks movie and I wanted to be just like the female goalie character.
Wheeler continued her ice hockey career at Penn State University, where she spent three years as the starting goalie for Penn State’s Lady Icers before being sidelined by a back injury her senior year.
During that same time, Wheeler was also an Air Force cadet as part of Penn States ROTC program. She completed the rigorous boot camp training and received an honorable discharge from the Air Force Reserves in 2006.
Its no surprise then that Wheelers platform for the pageant was Breaking Stereotypes, Building Leaders.
I wouldnt call myself a tomboy, but I definitely dont fit the stereotype of the typical pageant contestant, said Wheeler in a rare, relaxing moment over lunch at Restaurant Eve. I think many people have a misconception about pageant girls and I hope to help change that.
Armed with a degree in journalism and a minor in military studies, Wheeler has been working as a freelance reporter for Career TV. She is also a relief staff member and character development activities coordinator for Joe Gibbs Youth For Tomorrow organization.
She was accepted into Regent Universitys Masters program in journalism but will now put those plans on hold to serve as the states official hostess and prepare for the Miss America Pageant.
A singer, Wheeler performed Since I Fell For You in the talent competition, dedicating the song to her father Donald, a Department of Defense employee who has served three tours in Iraq as well as a stint in Afghanistan.
My father was in Iraq when I competed in the pageant last year, said Wheeler with obvious pride in her fathers military service over the years. But he was there this year and completely overwhelmed when I won.
But it was her mother, Alicia, whose off-hand comment to try something girly, that first gave Wheeler the idea to enter a pageant three years ago.
As this year’s Miss Arlington, the Alexandria and Northern Virginia community came together to help Wheeler capture the crown over 25 other contestants from across the state.
Hank Swann, a certified personal trainer (and popular weekend bartender at Union Street Publick House) coached Wheeler in preparation for the swimsuit competition, while Alexandria dentist Rena Vakay donated the cosmetic tweaking that gave Wheeler her winning smile.
I had so much help from the local community, a grateful Wheeler said, adding that she only had to pay for her talent gown and an $11 dress off a sale rack at Nordstrom’s that she wore for the opening production number.
Everything else was donated by Chip Brown and my local pageant committee as well as local businesses and sponsors, Wheeler said. I couldnt have done it without so many generous people helping me.
Wheeler is in the process of relocating to Roanoke, where she is provided with a 2-bedroom apartment for the year in order to be closer to state pageant officials.
But her travels as Miss Virginia will take her throughout the state and she is already looking forward to making as many appearances as possible in Northern Virginia in order to promote her platform of building self-esteem and confidence to young women in the area.
To whom much is given, much is expected, said Wheeler before rushing off to prepare for her official portrait sitting.
Young women need positive role models, and the celebrities of today, like Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears, theyre not delivering.