A brush with royalty
Miss Va. promotes healthy lifestyles
The Henrico North Rotary entertained visiting royalty Nov. 28 at The Westwood Club, and in turn, members were entertained and enlightened by the current Miss Virginia. What’s more, they got a surprise bonus: a chance to hear her comeback story.
To look at 21-year-old Rosemary Willis, one would never guess she is recovering from serious physical adversity. Attractive and athletic, she began dance lessons at the age of two and went on to play sports ranging from soccer and field hockey to gymnastics.
But in her senior year of high school, she suffered a boating accident that resulted in loss of consciousness and her third major concussion. The outcome of the injury was characterized as “minor” brain damage, including swelling of the brain, short-term memory loss, and problems with balance, hearing, cognitive skills and the ability to run.
The effect on Willis’ lifestyle, however, was anything but minor.
“The neurologist prescribed rest and no rigorous cardio training for at least a year,” she told Rotary members. “That was devastating news for an athlete who was on sports teams since the age of three. Playing soccer and field hockey were part of my identity, and that was now taken away from me.”
Because her recovery entailed a new sedentary lifestyle, she began to gain weight, and struggled with her self-esteem and an eating disorder. Coupled with her learning difficulties (“I could sit down and read a book and never remember that I read the book”) and the onset of her freshman year of college, the physical and emotional frustration sent her into a tailspin.
“I was already feeling insecure from my injury,” Willis said, “and I was ashamed to struggle with yet another obstacle that made me abnormal and took me further away from the happy, outgoing girl who was in love with life.”
With the help of counseling sessions, Willis eventually came to understand the role that sports had played in her self-concept, and found ways to replace soccer and hockey with new activities.
“It was exercise and self-respect that was missing from my life,” she told her audience. “I started weight lifting and doing yoga – things that wouldn’t exacerbate the injury.” She also began logging her food intake and improving the quality of her meals, and set achievable goals of finding one small thing to accomplish each day.
Little by little, her confidence and strength returned, and the experience became a catalyst for the discovery of her passion: educating others about the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
“They say when you lose something you learn to appreciate it,” Willis said. “I recognized that I loved being active because of the way it makes me feel and think positively about myself, [and] I became a fitness instructor and trainer to share my newfound joy for exercise with others.”
So when it came to time to choose her platform for the Miss Virginia competition, Willis said, the topic was a “no brainer.”
Since adopting her platform, “Get Moving Today for a Healthier Tomorrow,” and becoming Miss Virginia, Willis has traveled 25,000 miles, reached 10,000 students in 10 schools (where she has taken over P.E. classes to teach yoga and kickboxing), and spoken to more than 20 civic clubs on the topic. She also has met with officials from municipal governments and Parks and Recreation Boards about creating more anti-obesity programs for children, and shared her enthusiasm for exercise at camps in Ukraine, Africa, Costa Rica, and Haiti.
Her passion has also moved her to volunteer at summer sports camps in Virginia, Tennessee, New York, and in Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina victims. While at the College of William and Mary (she is on hiatus while serving her term as Miss Virginia) she volunteered for a non-profit, Campus Kitchens, as a recreation leader, teaching group fitness classes and serving as a personal trainer for senior adults, disabled adults, and obese children.
One of her favorite success stories regarding the positive effects of exercise stars a boy named Dante, who participated in a program she led in Newport News.
“Dante came in down on himself,” said Willis. “He had a bad attitude, low self-confidence, little cardiovascular endurance and he was struggling in school. He could only walk 10 minutes without getting winded.” But by the end of the four-month program, she said, Dante was planning to try out for his school football team, and had brought his parents to the sessions to learn how to read food labels and provide healthier options at home.
Service above self
In a question-and-answer session following her presentation to the Rotarians, Willis also answered questions about her talent (singing), siblings (two older brothers, whom she jokingly calls her “pageant team”), and her college major (government, with a minor in kinesiology and health sciences).
But probably the most common question Willis gets – aside from “How do you keep your crown on?” – is “Did you grow up doing pageants?”
Not at all, answered Willis, a Chesapeake native. Competing never entered her mind until her freshman year of college, when a friend suggested that she enter a local Miss America pageant as a means of winning scholarship money.
Willis – who described herself as something of a tomboy growing up -- said her initial response was to laugh. “I don’t even know how to put on makeup, or wear high heels!” she recalled saying at the time.
“But two years later, here I am,” she told the Rotarians. “I guess I clean up pretty nice.”
Anxious to dispel stereotypical ideas about pageants – which she said most people acquire from popular TV shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras – Willis explained that the Miss America organization is the largest scholarship provider for women in the world. Now that she has personally earned $21,000 in scholarships, Willis remarked, “My parents are really excited -- they don’t have to pay for my senior year!”
But more importantly, she said, her role as Miss Virginia has provided the opportunity be a role model, and to become more engaged in community service – service that she said is “[what] makes the world go ‘round. [It] cultivates a society that is about the ‘other” and not the self, in a world that seems to be increasingly more about immediate self-indulgence and satisfaction. . .
“That’s something I can relate to Rotary,” Willis added, “since your motto is ‘Service above self.’”
As Miss Virginia, Willis also has the opportunity to promote Miss America’s national platform (Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals) as Virginia’s statewide ambassador, and to pursue her goal of helping to save an at-risk generation of children from the negative effects of unhealthy lifestyles.
For the first time, she pointed out, members of the upcoming generation may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents due to these “convenience-based, fast-paced” lifestyles.
“Families aren’t taking the time to sit down for a meal, or go for a walk, and kids are spending an average of six hours a day on media,” said Willis, noting that schools – which in recent years have been cutting rather than adding time for recess and physical education – cannot take up the slack.
Yet studies show that that academic success and physical activity go hand-in-hand, and that healthy active students have a higher graduation rate, partly as a result of chemicals released in the brain during exercise.
Pointing out that money and transportation often pose tremendous barriers to children who want to participate in after-school sports, she encouraged Rotarians to consider projects such as sponsoring field days or paying for a school basketball team’s registration fees.
Seeing change first-hand
As she prepares for the Miss America pageant in January, Willis said she is maintaining a busy schedule of travel and official appearances along with her workouts, interview coaching and voice lessons.
But whether or not she goes on to greater fame as Miss America, she has her career goal – working with a non-profit organization that promotes health and wellness in the community and schools – nailed down. And she is the first to admit that she can thank her “lucky” accident for that.
“We all have excuses and barriers to exercise . . . and to achieve [our] best selves,” she said. “Though mine was an injury . . . many others’ could be disease, laziness, apathy, and lack of resources, time, or knowledge of the importance of wellness.”
In leading health and fitness groups, mentoring others, and “seeing lives change first-hand,” said Willis, she has found her life-long calling.
“I have felt no greater joy than when I get to be an enabler, a life-coach and motivational speaker, making a difference in people’s lives one by one.”
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