A Different Kind of Competition

Eric Evans
Alaina Bergsma displays her prowess in her first love, volleyball.

You can’t miss Alaina Bergsma, whether she’s crushing a fast set on the outside for the University of Oregon women’s volleyball team, or strutting her way across a beauty pageant stage. This third-team AVCA All-American volleyball player and Miss Oregon USA 2012 stands an elegant 6'3"—6'10" in her pageant shoes—and hails from Phoenix, Ariz., where she grew up in a very athletic family with two older brothers. A former basketball player, track star, and perpetual volleyball standout, Bergsma had never competed in a beauty pageant, or even really considered the possibility, until she entered Miss Lane County early last year. However, her competitive personality allowed her to jump right in, expecting nothing but complete success.

Bergsma credits her good friend Kelsey Moore for sparking her interest in pageants. Moore, a former teammate of Bergsma’s at Valley Christian High School in Phoenix, entered the Miss El Paso pageant in 2010 while playing for the University of Texas El Paso volleyball team. She won El Paso and went on to secure the title of Miss Texas USA 2010. “You have to try this,” Moore said to Bergsma after her victory. “It’s different from sports, it will look good on your resume, just try it.”

Inspired by Moore’s success, and maybe seeing a bit of herself in her friend’s tall, blonde beauty queen glamour shots, Bergsma entered and won Miss Lane County in April of last year, but she chose to keep it a secret, even from her U of O teammates. It wasn’t until she entered the Miss Oregon USA pageant, which was scheduled for right after the conclusion of the Ducks’ 2011 volleyball season, that she decided it was time to let her teammates in on her new passion.

“The first reaction from my teammates was like, ‘Wait, you’re serious?’” Bergsma said. But after that first moment of surprise and some light-hearted teasing, her teammates, coaches and the rest of the University of Oregon athletic community have all been very supportive. Bergsma was pleasantly surprised on the day she returned to Eugene from the Miss USA pageant (the national competition to which Bergsma earned a spot due to her victory in the Miss Oregon USA pageant) when coaches and student-athletes stopped her on the street and in the hallways to offer their congratulations and let her know they had watched her compete. Bergsma’s fellow female athletes were especially supportive.

“I was really happy that a lot of the girls’ sports teams actually watched Miss USA together,” Bergsma said. “That made me feel pretty special.”

Bergsma maintains that although pageants and high-level athletics may seem like completely different worlds, they have their similarities.

“[A pageant is] definitively a different kind of competition, but it still is a competition,” she said. “Just like you prepare for a big game, these girls prepare. This is their game – this is their sport. From what they’re eating to their sleeping habits, all of that is for the end result.”

Perhaps this is why Bergsma found immediate success in an activity with which she had no previous experience, even when some of the other women competing had been involved in pageants for almost their whole lives – she was used to training and practicing and changing every part of her life to perform at the highest level possible. The optimistic Bergsma is even able to see her inexperience as an advantage.

“[It’s] kind of like when you start playing sports at an older age, you have no bad habits. I didn’t have to change a whole lot because I was just learning how to do things.”

Much of the time Bergsma spent training for the pageant was concentrated on perfecting the art of walking in heels. She wore stilettos to class whenever she could, making her quite the sight, as she towered over the rest of the student population.

“I get a lot of looks, being 6'3" and wearing five-inch heels. I definitely stand out,” she said. But the practice was essential to her performance at the Miss USA pageant (during the swimsuit portion of the competition, the girls’ stage shoes were seven inches high). When asked if she wore the 7-inchers to class, Bergsma laughed. “No, I don’t think I own any pairs that high,” she said.

Bergsma is the tallest woman to ever compete in the Miss USA pageant in its 60-year history, something she is very proud of.

“So many girls that I talk to who are tall hate being tall. I wanted to celebrate my height,” she said.

Bergsma’s success on the pageant circuit has certainly set a precedent for other tall, athletic girls who may not be convinced that their height is beautiful. In fact, Bergsma won the title of Miss Photogenic in the Miss USA competition, the final icing on the cake for her, and her favorite moment out of all her pageant experiences.

Miss USA is likely to be Bergsma’s last pageant; however, she does see herself modeling in the future, a dream perhaps inspired and encouraged by her Miss Photogenic title. She also hopes to play professional volleyball after graduation, preferably in Asia.

“I have an aunt and uncle that live in Hong Kong,” she said, “I’ve been to Japan, I’m going back to China this summer, and I love it over there. I don’t speak any of the languages, but I love it.”

One place we won’t be seeing Bergsma, however, is on the beach.

“I know I want to play indoor,” she said. “I just think I’m kind of slow for sand. You can ask my team, I have no off-speed shot.”

But before “the future” arrives, Bergsma has one last season as a Duck to fight for an NCAA title (and finish her degree in Business Administration and Sports Marketing). Last year her team had a promising start, defeating Penn State in their season opener at State College and breaking the Nittany Lions’ 94-match at-home winning streak, but the Ducks’ season ended in a disappointing five-game loss to Colorado State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

At the end of last season, Bergsma ranked twelfth in the county for kills per set, at 4.51, and Oregon head coach Jim Moore says he thinks she’s an even better player now than she was then. When asked about her predictions for the coming season, Bergsma said, “I think the [Pac-12] will be very strong and I think my team will be better than we were last year.”

The Ducks certainly shouldn’t be counted out; after all, Bergsma’s on a bit of a winning streak, who’s to say NCAA champion won’t be her next title?

Something in Common

Alaina Bergsma’s attraction to pageants isn’t a random ace. Nana Meriwether, former middle blocker for UCLA, was crowned Miss Maryland this year and also competed in the Miss USA competition alongside Bergsma. Standing at 6’1’’, the 27 year-old Meriwether graduated UCLA as a two-time NCAA All-American. She also helped her team make an NCAA Final Four showing in 2006. After college she turned pro to continue playing volleyball in Puerto Rico and trained for the 2008 Olympics in Colorado Springs.

Though she retired from volleyball in 2007 and now holds the title of runner-up in the Miss USA competition, volleyball will stay with her forever.

“The years I spent on the UCLA volleyball team were the best years of my life,” Meriwether wrote on her blog back in 2010. “Playing for UCLA was not just an athletic experience; it affected who I was off the court as well, allowing me to become the confident, ambitious, intelligent woman I am today.”

Meriwether also co-founded The Meriwether Foundation in 2007, an international nonprofit aimed to support AIDS/HIV orphans and sustain rural clinics and community and agricultural projects in Southern African countries. The Foundation continues the pro bono medical and community work Meriwether’s parents started in the 1980’s.

“The journey to the Miss USA competition has not only given me the opportunity to continue on with my international humanitarian work,” Meriwether quoted on her Miss USA profile, “but, I have also been able to implement skills of discipline and leadership acquired from my years as an NCAA All-American athlete and scholar.”

Originally published in September/October 2012

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