Webster Volleyball player doubles as pageant contestant

Kristen McDowell celebrates a point in the Grant Gymnasium against Illinois Wesleyan University on Sept. 12. PHOTO BY JORDAN PALMER/ THE JOURNAL

Senior Kristen McDowell said she lives off coffee and fair food, especially pork patties and pumpkin spice lattes.

“Starbucks knows me very well,” said McDowell.

In addition to her duties as co-captain of the volleyball team, McDowell is also currently in the Miss America pageant circuit. However, McDowell may not have come to Webster, without the insistence of an observant coach,  and she may never have played volleyball or have become Miss Madison County without the example of an older sister.

A Difficult Decision

The only reason Webster University was on McDowell’s radar was because of Merry Graf, Webster’s women’s volleyball coach.

Graf was scouting another volleyball player when she saw McDowell. As the game progressed, Graf became less interested in the girl she was supposed to scout and more interested in McDowell.

McDowell said she had looked at 15 colleges by the time Graf approached her about Webster. McDowell really did not want to look at yet another college, but her father had convinced her to look at one last one. When she and her father visited Webster, McDowell said her father fell in love with the school, but she was still unconvinced.

Part of the reason was because she didn’t think she was good enough. McDowell was struggling with her self-confidence when she learned about Webster. She thought of going to another university, one she knew would be easier and where she knew the coach. While she contemplated whether she was good enough to play at Webster, McDowell’s father kept reassuring her she could do it and she was good enough.

“It was so weird. I went to Colorado for a tournament and then out of nowhere I was eating dinner with my family. When we got back that next day I was like; ‘I think I’m going to go to Webster,” McDowell said. “But it ended up being the best decision I ever made.”

All in the family

McDowell began playing volleyball because her older sister Jessica James needed a practice partner. James would take McDowell out in the yard and start tossing balls at her; all McDowell had to do was hit them back.

James was also a contestant in their county fair pageants. Wanting to be like her older sister, McDowell made up her mind to become a pageant contestant when she became old enough.

“I had told my mom when I saw Jessica run, ‘you know I’m going to do that, right?’”

Photo contributed by Ramie Jayne Photography Kristin McDowell poses for a photo. She was named Miss Madison County in 2013.

When she was 16, McDowell started competing in county fair pageants. She started off as Miss Staunton, from her home town Staunton, Ill. After that McDowell tried for three years and finally became Miss Madison County in 2013.

As Miss Madison County, McDowell had to go around the county promoting county fairs and agriculture. It also allowed McDowell to compete in the Miss Illinois County Fair Queen competition.

She competed against 72 other county fair queens and made it into the top 15. McDowell said it was her goal to reach that level. McDowell gave up her crown in July and is now looking for another.

And now, McDowell is in the Miss America pageant circuit. To compete in Miss America she had to pick a talent and a cause. McDowell said she used to tap dance, so she picked that back up and dances to a remix of “Respect” made famous by Aretha Franklin. The cause she chose is The R-Word: Spread the Word to End the Word. McDowell is very passionate about bringing awareness to the damage words like ‘retarded’ can have on people.

She is competing for the Miss Illinois title this year and has gone through two preliminary phases.

McDowell said most of her success is because of her parents. She said they have always been supportive with whatever she wanted to do. Her dad encourages her in athletics and her mom helps with pageants and overcoming stress. She says she can not remember a time when at least one of her parents was not at an event, and if her dad’s dream comes true, he will be at all her games.

“My dad more than anything wants to be the Gorlok one day,” McDowell said.

McDowell is a special education major, has two on-campus jobs and is. She is also program manager and student supervisor for Campus Activities, a connections leader and orientation leader for the Office of First Year Experience, and a coach for the Rockwood Thunder volleyball club.

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