Sunday, July 27, 2008


Published: July 27, 2008

Tara Wheeler: Ice hockey goalie, flight commander… and possibly Miss America?

Wheeler, 24, of Woodbridge won the title of Miss Virginia in June. Now she's living in Roanoke, where she's serving her yearlong term (the organization sets her up with an apartment).

In January, she'll compete for the title of Miss America.

Her platform, or issue she cares about and uses her title to promote, is "Breaking Stereotypes, Building Leaders," inspired by her own experiences.

"I just think it's really important not to put people in boxes and not to judge a book by its cover," Wheeler said. "I had a lot pf people telling me that girls couldn't play [ice hockey] and I made it to the Olympic team tryouts."

She tried out in 2001, but didn't make the team.

Wheeler graduated from Gar-Field Senior High School in 2002 and from Penn State in 2006. She was a starting goalie for the women's ice hockey team (she's been playing since she was a kid) and was an Air Force ROTC cadet mentor and flight commander.

At Penn State she also founded a mentoring organization called "Positive Role Models Building Powerful Women." She said she was invited to represent that organization at the United Nations for the Redlight Children Campaign, against child sexploitation.

She received $27,000 for her education from the Air Force, but it still wasn't enough to finance out of state tuition. She poked around on the Web and discovered scholarship opportunities with Miss America.

"Miss America is the largest provider of scholarships to women in the world, which is some-thing a lot of people don't know," Wheeler said. "I've earned $23,000 through Miss America for my education."

Wheeler began competing three years ago, winning Miss Pittsburgh in 2006, and competing in typical pageant categories, such as swimsuit, evening gown, talent, questions and community service. Her dress wasn't anything super-fancy.

"I won my first pageant in my old homecoming dress," Wheeler said.

She didn't win Miss Pennsylvania, but back in Virginia, after college, she won Miss Blue Ridge Mountains and made it to the top 10 for Miss Virginia.

In December she won Miss Arlington, in June she won Miss Virginia.

She was working two jobs when she won, as a residential counselor at Joe Gibbs' "Youth for Tomorrow" group home and as a motivational speaker for's "Making it Count" program. After winning, she had to give her two week's notice and move to Roanoke.

"It's a full-time job, getting out into the community and promoting the organiza-tion," Wheeler said.

(It's different than many full time jobs in one respect: she covers her own health insurance).

As Miss Virginia she's the spokesperson for the Children's Miracle Network in Virginia, a non-profit dedicated to raising money for children's hospitals across America. She also makes appearances at schools throughout the Commonwealth.

"We're certainly proud of her," said her mother, Alicia Wheeler.

In January, Tara will be in Las Vegas, competing against women from all over the country for the title of Miss America, a pageant she never really watched as a kid.

"I think I'm more excited," Wheeler said. "I'm going into it believ-ing I could be Miss America… I can't take any second of it for granted."

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