KEARNEY — Sophia Steffen always loved sports, but when she tore up her knee playing volleyball in her junior year at Kearney High School, she learned a valuable lesson.
“I realized that one second can take your athletic life away from you,” she said.
Now she’s focused on competition of a different kind.
On Nov. 2, Steffen won the Miss Nebraska Collegiate America 2020 pageant. She will compete for the Miss Collegiate America 2020 crown at Little Rock, Ark., in June.
“This has taught me so many skills — communications, working with a team, the ability to speak in front of huge audiences and judges, and in front of a camera,” said Steffen, 19, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“The pageant world is different from anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve met girls with the same values and motivations as I have. I’m learning new skills. I get to sell myself,” she added.
Steffen grew up water skiing, wakeboarding and kneeboarding on the lake where her parents, Kara and Lance Steffen, owned a cabin. She played volleyball and tennis at KHS and graduated in 2018.
After her knee injury, a coworker at The Buckle mentioned beauty pageants. The 5-foot-11-inch Steffen worked as a fit model at The Buckle. She had watched beauty pageants on television, “but I had never built up the nerve to actually sign up,” she said.
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She took the plunge and quickly learned that pageants were far more than just walking down a runway. The application included questions like her biggest accomplishment and her biggest challenge.
In her first pageant, Miss Teen Nebraska 2018, Steffen was named second runner-up. “People told me, ‘You can’t stop now,’” she said.
Her heart told her that, too. “I woke up the next morning and had the pageant bug. I woke up wanting more,” she said.
The Miss Collegiate Nebraska pageant did not have swimsuit or talent competitions. Its focus is community service.
The competition included a 30-minute interview that included political questions on topics such as the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. “That was more difficult for me. I am still a teenager, and it can be hard to have a strong opinion about questions like that at my age,” she said.
But she believes her interviewing skills are a strength. “You can do all you want to look good, but if you can’t keep up a conversation and answer questions, you won’t go far,” she said.
This time, she won.
“In years past, I wasn’t ready to lose. This year, I knew I had a lot to offer, but I was just as ready to lose as to win,” she said.
Her focus for the next five months will be the pageant in Little Rock. She is working with Springboard Girls, coaches in Lincoln who have helped her since she began entering beauty pageants. In April, she will attend a so-called “boot camp” to learn skills like walking in high heels that are between 4 and 5 inches high, which she must do in Little Rock.
The six days of the national pageant will be packed with training, rehearsals and a few fun off-site excursions.
The 50 contestants will vie in individual interview (40 percent), evening gown (40 percent) and fun fashion (20 percent). For the latter, she will wear spandex pants and a sports bra. “My modeling job with The Buckle really helped with that. I am comfortable putting on just about anything,” she said.
Prior to June, delegates must generously perform community service.
Preliminaries will be June 26. On the pageant’s final evening, June 27, 15 finalists will be chosen. The winner will get a new Jeep, among other prizes.
As June approaches, Steffen described her mother Kara, a pharmaceutical sales representative, as “the glue that holds it all together.”
“She has gotten up with me at 5 a.m. for photo shoots and makeup calls. At times, all this has been frustrating and overwhelming, but she is always there with a positive word of encouragement. She has never questioned what I’m doing,” she said.
Her father, head salesperson for Howitzer Clothing Co., is cheering her on, too, as are her younger brothers, ages 13 and 11. “My family now watches pageants like other families watch sports,” she said. They will all be with her in Little Rock.
Steffen, a member of Alpha Phi sorority at UNL, is majoring in women and gender studies and minoring in psychology. She is keenly interested in women’s employment and social work, but she also is eying law or mediation.
On the soft side, she loves volunteering with special needs children and teens, which she has done since high school.
“I love these kids. They are so special. They want to do everything we do. They light up any day or any week of mine. They make me happy,” she said.
Steffen enjoys reading books about history and writing in her journal. At UNL, she works as a suite hostess with the athletic department.
“I’ve done pageants for a few years, so I instinctively felt like 2019 would be a good year for me,” she said.
Steffen hopes 2020 is, as well.