At a speaking event, a little girl in a wheelchair, no more than seven, asked me: “Do you think someone who looks like us could ever be considered pretty enough to compete in Miss USA?” That comment hit me hard. What should I tell her? That of course a girl in a wheelchair could be Miss USA—even if I wasn’t sure I believed it? I realized that up to that point, I honestly hadn’t thought that was possible. I was competing in pageants for women in wheelchairs. As much as they’d been new to me, I didn’t have to worry about being completely different.

Still, I wanted to prove to that little girl—and myself—that people like us can be Miss USA. That I can be an example.

Last year, I entered Miss North Carolina USA—the first woman to ever compete in a wheelchair in that pageant—and it was one of the most difficult and uncomfortable, experiences that I’ve ever had. But it was also amazing. Picture being backstage with girls who are towering above you, with legs for days. I felt so insecure. I truly had to overcome a lot of that to be able to go out on stage. I didn’t win but I did make the top 15 and I left determined to come back for the crown.

Ryan Miles / Sage Media Group

That’s exactly what I’m hoping to do this weekend—my second go-around at the Miss North Carolina USA pageant. During the past year, I’ve been prepping to earn the title. I’ve been working with a designer on a gown that incorporates my wheelchair. (It has a long train but won’t get caught in my wheels—a true fashion miracle!) I’ve been working with a trainer to feel strong and confident. (This is the first time in my life I feel comfortable enough to wear a bikini in public—a shift that’s not so much about where my body is as where my mind is.) And I’m working to manage my incontinence. (I can’t be sitting in a $3,000 dress on stage and have something happen so I’ve been working with Aeroflow Urology, a company that supplies catheters and pads, to make sure I have all the right products.)

But the most important thing I’ve done to prepare for the pageant is to work on my mental game. I have to believe 100% that I am worthy, I am deserving. That’s the hardest thing for me. It’s a challenge not to compare yourself to others, especially when you’re surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in the world. But if there’s one thing my disability and living with incontinence has taught me, it’s that no matter how hard we try to be perfect, it’s our “flaws” that really connect us. For me, it might be that I pee in my pants every once in a while. For you, it might be something else. So we’re imperfect—that doesn’t make us any less worthy. Right now, I’m working my hardest to go into the pageant with the knowledge that I deserve to be there, that I’ll shine on stage, and that regardless of outcome, something good will come out of this.

If I win Miss North Carolina USA and advance to Miss USA, I will be the first girl in a wheelchair to ever make it to that stage. And if I don’t win this year, it’s my full intention to go back next year and give it another try—I’m in it to win it. I know it’s a challenge, but I think it would change a lot of people’s minds about how someone who looks different—particularly someone who uses a wheelchair—is beautiful and strong.

Madeline will compete for the title of Miss North Carolina USA this weekend. Cast your vote for the pageants people’s choice award here.

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