Standing ovations for first woman with Down syndrome to compete in Miss Minnesota USA

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Mikayla Holmgren made history Sunday night at the Ames Center in Burnsville when she became the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant.

Holmgren, who also is believed to be the first woman with Down syndrome to compete nationwide, was named the recipient of the Miss Minnesota USA Spirit Award and Director’s Award.

The 22-year-old from Marine on St. Croix, dressed in a royal-blue Jovani gown with a train, shrieked with joy as she accepted the awards.

“You make people smile every time you talk, cheer, smile and dance,” said Denise Wallace Heitkamp, executive state director, as she read from Mikayla’s nomination letter for the Spirit Award. “You exude the spirit of Miss USA by always being true to yourself and putting others first. You have selflessness, humility and the ability to overcome obstacles with a smile on your face and excitement in your heart.”

The audience gave Holmgren standing ovations as she accepted the awards.

“I’m so excited,” Holmgren said. “I can’t believe it!”

Kalie Wright of Eagle Bend was named Miss Minnesota USA 2018; Melissa Paahk of Detroit Lakes was runner-up.

Peyton Schroeder of Rosemount was named Miss Teen Minnesota USA.

The contest is part of the Miss Universe Organization.

Among those cheering were Lana Beaton and her 2-year-old daughter Clara, of Grand Forks, N.D. Beaton said she read about Holmgren’s accomplishments and decided to bring her daughter, who has Down syndrome, to the historic event.

“I was overwhelmed,” Beaton said. “I was full of so much hope and joy and excitement for her and our future.”

Mary Lynn Loegering, of Stillwater, brought her 10-year-old daughter, Emily, who also has Down syndrome. Holmgren and Emily are friends; the two were “buddies” at St. Croix Preparatory Academy.

“Mikayla is breaking down barriers,” Loegering said. “It’s fabulous to have people with disabilities become just part of normal, everyday society. She is a total groundbreaker in that area. Her smile and enthusiasm are contagious. It’s fantastic. She is showing the world all her abilities.”

Holmgren said she is proud to be a role model for girls like Clara and Emily.

She works with 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 student at Bethel University’s Inclusive Learning and Development 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.

Her classmate, Jackson Bean, who also has Down syndrome, said Holmgren was a “champion of (his) heart” and that “she should be proud to be here.”

“It’s great for the for the whole community of disability just to have her here and have her up on stage,” said his mother, Jane Bean, who lives in Osceola, Wis. “It means that anybody with a disability has a chance — just like anybody else. It’s just fantastic. She’s just showing the world all her abilities.”

Holmgren, a dancer and gymnast, is no stranger to competition. In 2015, she was crowned Minnesota Miss Amazing in the pageant’s junior miss division; 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.

Sandi and Craig Holmgren said they were proud of their daughter’s accomplishments.

“Competing in this has been an incredible experience for her,” Sandi Holmgren said. “She’s just amazing. She goes after what she wants. She said, ‘I want to do this. I’m going to go do this,’ and we said, ‘All right.’ She just goes after it.”

The Holmgrens said they never lowered their expectations as to what their daughter could do.

“We never held her back,” Sandi Holmgren said. “We said, ‘If you want to do it, go ahead. Go for it.’ I think that probably helps a little bit in her confidence — knowing that we support her in whatever she does.”

Her advice for parents of children with Down syndrome is to never give up.

“And don’t treat them like they have a disability,” Sandi Holmgren said. “We have always treated her as a child first, and her Down syndrome is secondary. She had an interview once and she said, ‘Yeah, I have a little Down syndrome on the side,’ and we just cracked up. You know, that’s kind of where she puts it. Because we all have some kind of disability.”

The Holmgrens set up a GoFundMe page to help defray some of the $3,400 in expenses they incurred.

Donations came from all over the U.S. and Canada, Sandi Holmgren said.

“We had people Texas, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Maine, Maryland, almost every state,” Sandi Holmgren said. “It’s been overwhelming. We can’t thank people enough.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum Communications.