Woman with Down syndrome to compete for Miss Minnesota USA

Published 1:27 pm Sunday, June 11, 2017

ST. PAUL — The commands come rapid-fire: Walk forward, straighten up, relax, pop your leg, walk forward, smile, put your arm down, stop and pose.

Mikayla Holmgren, perched on a pair of 3-inch tan Bandolino heels, listens carefully to pageant coach Wendi Russo’s instructions.

She strolls confidently to the front of a mirrored dance studio at Bethel University in Arden Hills, checks her reflection in the mirror and angles her right heel above her left toe. If she were standing on a clock, her left foot would be at the 10 and her right at 12.

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“Wow! Look at that! Hello!” Russo says. “Now, the judges are going to say your name. The light’s on you. You go forward. Very nice. Excellent job!”

Holmgren watches Russo and then follows in her wake, walking the length of the room with a bright smile on her face.

“Attaching your wrist to your body,” Russo said. “Relax, relax. Wow. Beautiful! When you look at them, it’s, like, ‘Nice to meet you! Nice to meet you!’ OK, now we leave, so we head towards them and kind of off. OK, now start walking. There you go. Look at that! Woo-hoo!”

As Holmgren walks off the pretend stage, Russo greets her with a high-five.

“That was on fire!” Russo says. “That was amazing!”

Holmgren, 22, of Marine on St. Croix, is amazing. The dancer and gymnast was crowned Minnesota Miss Amazing in the pageant’s junior miss division in 2015; the pageant is for girls and women with special needs. She went on to represent the state in the national Junior Miss Amazing pageant in Los Angeles.

Now, Holmgren, who has Down syndrome, is setting her sights on a bigger and more historic role: the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. When Holmgren takes the stage in November, she will be the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in the state pageant and is believed to be the first to compete nationwide.

“I’m really excited. I’m proud. I’m proud of all I’ve done,” Holmgren said. “I’m having a great time being in this pageant. I’m not nervous. I really, really, really enjoy being on the stage. I’m, like, ‘Hey, people!’ “

Holmgren learned about the Miss Minnesota USA pageant — part of the Miss Universe Organization — through a flier she received in the mail.

“She opened it up and said, ‘Mom, I want to do this,’” said her mother, Sandi Holmgren. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m not sure.’ She said, ‘Oh, please? It will be fun!’”

Sandi Holmgren asked Jordan Crosser, the director of the Minnesota Miss Amazing contest, for some advice.

“Mikayla has so much drive; I have no doubt that she will do well,” Crosser said. “I hope that she’s able to bring home the title, but, more than that, I hope that she walks away knowing she has shown the panel of judges that Down syndrome does not define her.”

Competing in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant will give Holmgren a platform to talk about mentoring and Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization that works to promote one-on-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Holmgren is a Best Buddies ambassador and will represent Minnesota and the partnership between Miss Universe and Best Buddies at the organization’s international leadership conference in Indiana later this month.

“I am excited to be a part of their team,” Holmgren said. “I’ll get to make some new friends and learn leadership skills that will help me in my future.”

Holmgren is a student at Bethel University’s Inclusive Learning and Development (BUILD) program, a two-year post-secondary program for students with intellectual disabilities. She lives on campus, has an internship at the university’s child care center and will graduate in 2018.

She recently started a Go Fund Me account to raise money to help pay for pageant costs; the entry fee is $950.

“I applied to the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant not knowing if I would be accepted. And, that is all I want . to be accepted,” Holmgren wrote in her fundraising appeal. “Well, I am in. I want the world to know that Down syndrome does not define me. With your help, I can help break through walls.”

The Miss Minnesota USA pageant will be Nov. 25-26 at the Ames Center in Burnsville. The winner will compete in the Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas next spring and could go on to be the next Miss Universe.

Miss USA contestants are judged on interview, evening gown and swimsuit; there is no talent portion of the contest.

Denise Wallace Heitkamp is executive co-director of Future Productions in Savage, Minn., which produces the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, as well as the pageants in Iowa, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota. She said there was no question as to whether Holmgren would be a “good fit” for the pageant.

“If you look at who she is, she has an incredible dance background, she loves being on stage, she loves performing, she’s a very articulate young woman who has done a lot of speaking already, so there’s just check, check, check,” Heitkamp said.

“We’ll benefit from having her in the event because she’ll be such an amazing asset, and she’s going to thrive in that environment and come away an even better version of herself from the experience, and that’s, ultimately, what we’re looking for. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Miss Minnesota USA is known for valuing inclusion and diversity, Heitkamp said. It made history last year when Halima Aden of St. Cloud, wearing a burkini and hijab, became the first fully covered Muslim woman to compete in the pageant.

When pageant coach Russo heard that Holmgren was going to be competing in Miss Minnesota USA, she called the Holmgrens and volunteered her services.

“Mikayla is an inspiration, and I want to see her succeed,” Russo said. “Right now, we’re working on her walking and her presentation — how to present herself in a swimsuit versus gown. She’s going to need repetition, so it’s good that we’re starting so early. For now, she’s working on the basics, which is going well. She is starting in a smaller heel, which is 3 inches. She doesn’t need to be in some Amazonian heel.”

Russo, who was Mrs. United Nations 2016 and Mrs. Minnesota United States 2010, said she plans to use her pageant connections to find a gown for Holmgren to wear in the pageant; Holmgren wore a red gown when she competed in Minnesota Miss Amazing, but Russo is leaning toward blue for Miss Minnesota USA, she said.

She put a post on her Facebook page about Holmgren — “Who would like to help her dream come true?” — and has already secured a nutrition and fitness sponsor.

“I’m hoping someone will donate an opening-number gown and swimsuit,” Russo said. “Honestly, I don’t think she should pay for anything. I want to get her a whole wardrobe, earrings donated — that’s my job, helping with every aspect of preparation.”

Perfecting the walks and memorizing the floor pattern is harder than it looks, Holmgren said. When she walks in her evening gown, she needs to take small, slow steps; the bathing suit walk is “faster and funner,” she said.

“I’ve been practicing,” she told Russo during a recent session.

“Yes, I can tell,” Russo said. “You’re remembering all of the stances and your posture, and you know how to do your arms and hold your hand up on your hip. You need to always be smiling at the judges, and facing and looking at them, kind of like you do when you dance.”

Remembering to smile and have fun is not an issue for Holmgren, Russo said.

“The fun part is always going to be there,” she said. “I don’t think she can do anything and not have fun. Right, Mikayla?”

“I don’t get nervous at all,” Holmgren said. “I’m not shy.”

Sandi and Craig Holmgren said they have been shocked by the amount of attention their daughter’s pageant participation has garnered.

“I’m in a panic. (NBC Nightly News anchor) Lester Holt called yesterday,” Sandi Holmgren said. “This is just something fun we were going to do because she wanted to do it. I didn’t realize the magnitude of how big it really was.

“In our little minds, we thought, ‘Well, we’ll just do a little prom dress, and we’ll do her hair and makeup and we’re good to go,’” Sandi Holmgren said. “I was just going to go to the mall and buy a swimsuit. But now that it’s becoming such a big story, (Russo) wants to take it further. She wants Mikayla to really shine. It’s just incredible.”

Sandi Holmgren, a freelance graphic designer, said she doesn’t know what to expect when her daughter takes the stage.

“We might have the Mikayla version of ‘Miss Congeniality,’” she said. “I can see her being all dressed up and in her high heels up on stage, and all of a sudden saying, ‘Hey, I think I’ll just do a cartwheel now and just cartwheel off the stage.’”

During a recent family vacation in Tucson, her daughter tried walking in perilously high heels at a department store, she said. “I’m expecting her to fall flat on her face, but since she dances en pointe (in ballet), it was almost like she was en pointe walking,” Sandi Holmgren said. “Her foot already knew how to be high. She almost walked better than she does in her regular shoes.”

Mikayla Holmgren is on the Bethel University dance team and dances at Inspiration Performing Arts Center in Mahtomedi, where she choreographs her own dances. Her latest solo is a rhythmic dance routine set to one of her favorite songs, Lauren Daigle’s “Wordless.”

“Dancing is my passion,” Holmgren said. “I’ve been dancing since I was 1 year old. I started taking lessons when I was 7. I practice all the time.”

Sandi Holmgren signed her daughter up for dance lessons after reading an article in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. “The article was about how dance, especially ballet, can help people with special needs to strengthen their muscles and focus, and I thought, ‘Let’s try it,’” Sandi Holmgren said. “We tried T-ball once, and that didn’t go real well.”

Mikayla Holmgren also does gymnastics at Flyaways Gymnastics in Forest Lake, plays golf with the St. Croix Valley Lumberjacks Special Olympics team, lifts weights, does yoga and runs on a treadmill.

But schoolwork takes priority, she said.

“You’ve got to do your classes first and then do the other stuff,” she said. “You have to do the important stuff first. Schoolwork is most important.”

After she graduates, she would like to either teach dance or be an artist; she specializes in dog photography.

Craig and Sandi Holmgren said they hope their daughter will be an inspiration.

“We want to give parents of children with Down syndrome hope when they think about what the future looks like,” Sandi Holmgren said. “Because we were there 22 years ago, going ‘What does my future look like?’ We never expected anything like this.”

Said Mikayla Holmgren: “I’m a role model. I’m the first with Down syndrome to compete, but I won’t be the last.”