MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student-athlete Paula Kuiper is the new Miss Wisconsin.
The cross country and track and field standout claimed the honor Saturday in Oshkosh and will now compete in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City this September.
Kuiper will also travel the state for the next year, promoting her platform, Breaking the Age Barrier.
The moment Saturday night when her name was announced is one she'll never forget.
"I was standing there with Miss Kenosha, Caitlin Schober. I looked at her and I said, 'I just want to let you know, if you're Miss Wisconsin, I will be so happy for you.' At that moment we just had a sense of peace come over us," Kuiper said. "Then the emcee said, 'And the first runner up is...a very important person,' and everyone is like come on, seriously. Then he did name the first runner up was Caitlin and I just screamed. I couldn't even tell you what went through my mind but it was a moment I will never forget, that's for sure."
A Racine native, Kuiper was the winner of the Miss Racine Pageant in 2012 and the Miss Madison/Capital City Pageant in 2013. She was a freshman at Milwaukee this past year, competing in five cross country races, finishing in the top seven twice. She then redshirted in the track season to maintain freshman eligibility in that sport.
"I'm very proud of her," Milwaukee track and field and cross country coach Pete Corfeld said. "It is just a reflection of the type of person she is. She is a go-getter and a champion, and she is clearly winning in a lot of different areas of life."
Kuiper's platform has her hoping to work with Alzheimer's patients by taking them out of nursing homes and into the community. She also wanted to work with a program called Wish of a Lifetime, which grants wishes to seniors who may not otherwise be able to afford to see those wishes granted.
She has worked as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home since age 15, and also says her platform and inspiration to be involved in scholarship pageants comes thanks to her relationship with her grandmother.
"It has to do with bringing generations together within this community," Kuiper said. "I'll be working very closely with a non-profit organization called the The Wish Of A Lifetime, which grants wishes to senior citizens who aren't able to do so.
Kuiper never thought she would get this involved in pageants.
"It was actually my Nana who said, 'Paula, you should really do this,' and I'm thinking, 'Oh my goodness, this is something that I could never do.' I never grew up in pageants," Kuiper said. "I grew up the same way everybody else did. I was just a little kid running around outside. There was no special treatment that I had. I think that's one of the most enjoyable things that I enjoy telling people is that this is something that I never expected for my life. It was just the suggestion of my Nana and I just decided to go with that. It seems like such an impossible thing to so many people but it really is possible."
In winning the pageant, Kuiper will leave the team and school for the next year to fulfill the Miss Wisconsin and Miss America obligations. But Kuiper, who is majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry, hopes to become a pediatrician or geriatrician and plans to return to school and sports in 2014-15.
"I actually really am looking forward to (coming back). Both the men's and women's cross country and track and field teams are awesome and I can't wait to come back to the team and just be with everybody," Kuiper said. "After I won (Miss Wisconsin) it hit me a couple days later that, 'Oh, I'm not going to be competing for a whole year.' That was a bit of a bummer but it just makes me that much more excited to come back next fall."
"It was great to have her on the team this year," Corfeld said. "I know we'll miss her next year, but she already told me how excited she is to get back to the team and continue her education."
(Release courtesy of Milwaukee athletics communications)