When Jaclyn Raulerson wheeled her skateboard down the sidewalks of her Walden Lake subdivision as a child, it was difficult to envision her gracefully walking across a stage in a regal gown.
When she challenged the boys to basketball games, you didn't see her some day challenging some of Florida's most self-assured and beautiful women in a pageant.
When she climbed oak trees, you didn't see her climbing to the pinnacle of the state's Miss America system and reigning as Miss Florida.
"I just did not do anything girly," Raulerson said Monday, nine days after being crowned the new Miss Florida in St. Petersburg.
"I was just a tomboy."
But now, Raulerson, who turns 20 next month, completely looks the part. The 5-foot-11 (in flats, she laughs) University of Central Florida junior sports a radiant smile framed by blond hair. Her ability to deftly handle inquiries during the interview portion of pageants reflects her desired career in broadcasting.
She entered the Miss Florida pageant as one of the favorites. Now she hopes to become the next Miss America on Jan. 15 when ABC televises the event to a national audience from Las Vegas.
The funny thing is Raulerson once showed more interest in being the next Brooke Bennett, the three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist from Plant City, than the next Miss America.
At the age of 10, Raulerson devoted her free time to early morning and afternoon swim practices, determined to someday win Olympic gold. She qualified for the Junior Olympics in 2000, but strep throat befell Raulerson and her young teammates. The teammates opted for rest, but Raulerson said she kept practicing.
"Swimming was something I wanted to do the rest of my life," said Raulerson, the daughter of Shirley and Dan Raulerson, the mayor of Plant City.
"I've always been a driven and dedicated person. I was pushing myself so hard. I pushed myself so hard I had to be hospitalized for exhaustion."
When doctors and her parents insisted Raulerson take a break from swimming, her heart broke. It was difficult for her to understand. Now she looks back on that moment with a sense of divine intervention, believing God simply had a different plan for her life.
With swimming out of reach, she turned her attention to pageants. With the support and guidance of her mother, who competed in the 1980 Miss Florida pageant, Raulerson began competing in the Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen Pageant program. Along the way, she served as a member of the Florida Strawberry Festival court.
In 2009, she competed in the Miss Florida pageant after winning the Miss Lakeland title. This year, she qualified by winning the Miss Largo title.
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In the two years between the contests, Raulerson revamped her talent presentation. She had always sung ballads standing behind a microphone stand. But this time, she took her performance in a different direction.
With the help of a voice coach and choreographer, she produced a stylized version of Feeling You, a song from the Broadway musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd that crooner Michael Buble introduced to a new generation.
"I loved the message of the song and wanted to feel good on stage, so I said, 'Why not? Let's try it,' " Raulerson said.
The new Miss Florida will take a year off from college to represent the state and promote her platform, the Children's Miracle Network. She also will prepare for the biggest pageant of her life.
"I'll definitely be ready," Raulerson said. "I spent the whole year preparing for the job at hand, and I visualized myself in this job.
"Now I'm visualizing myself in the job of Miss America. The (Miss Florida) board of directors is going to do a great job preparing me, and then it will be in God's hands."
In Raulerson's voice, there is the unyielding drive that once prompted her to take on every boy and swim through illness. I don't know if she will win, but I wouldn't bet against her.
That's all I'm saying.