New Gloucester woman crowned Miss Maine USA

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New Gloucester resident Katie Whittier, who grabbed headlines as a standout basketball star in high school and college, now has another accolade to add to her scrapbook: Miss Maine USA 2010.

In her first-ever beauty pageant, the blond, 6-foot-2-inch Whittier won the Miss USA-affiliated competition at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland Saturday night.

“This was totally different than anything I’ve been involved with before. I grew up watching pageants, but I was too involved with basketball to take part. But this year I decided to go for it,” the 26-year-old Whittier said.

In the run-up to the competition, Whittier said she practiced walking in high heels, had her family pepper her with possible interview questions, organized which outfits she would wear for the swimsuit and evening gown competitions and “toned up” at Planet Fitness in nearby Auburn.

Though most people think pageant winners are honed and developed from a young age, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Whittier.

“I started thinking about entering in September, but nothing was set in stone. I went and watched a few pageants just to see, but it wasn’t until about three weeks ago that I committed,” Whittier said of her first foray into pageantry.

And as winner of the Maine pageant, Whittier is scheduled to represent the state at the Miss USA Pageant at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas on April 18. The event, which garnered national attention last year with Miss California Carrie Prejean’s answers regarding gay marriage, is owned by Donald Trump and will be televised live on NBC.

But the humble, yet self-confident Whittier is ready for the media spotlight. She said she answered a question at the Maine pageant about former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and welcomes challenging questions from the judges.

“People can ask whatever. I’m just going to focus on the positive,” Whittier said.

Whittier is able to handle the pressure partly because she has many years of experience dealing with athletic pressure as a forward for Gray-New Gloucester High School and University of Maine at Orono. Followers of local girl’s basketball no doubt remember Whittier as dominating all aspects of the game, from free throws to rebounding and shooting from the field.

Whittier averaged nearly 15 points and 11 rebounds as a high school player. She led Gray-New Gloucester to two state championship appearances. In college, she scored a double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds) in her first appearance as a starter for the Black Bears, and helped lead the team to an America East championship and a berth in the NCAA finals. After college, Whittier also spent a year playing professionally in a women’s league in Switzerland.

And the confidence, discipline and poise she learned on the court are coming in handy on the pageant stage.

“I have to say, I was a little nervous Saturday night,” Whittier said. “It was like playing in my first basketball game. All the other girls knew what to expect, but it was totally different than anything I’ve been involved in. But I didn’t compare myself with anyone. I just focused on myself, and it ended up being really fun.”

Not only has Whittier’s competitive athletic background come in handy in her new pursuit, she is also taking on the pageant world to push her passion for group homes. In her role as a direct care provider, Whittier helps her parents run the Whittier House, a home that serves people with disabilities with two locations in New Gloucester. She hopes her Maine crown and national exposure will draw attention to these pursuits.

“I’m mostly interested in helping Special Olympics and advocating for small group homes, which are seeing their budgets cut. I’ve volunteered with Special Olympics for 10 years now,” Whittier said.

Their daughter’s recent triumph is no surprise to Ron and Marlene Whittier. They say Katie Whittier is very much goal-oriented.

“She’s pretty determined,” Ron Whittier said. “She wanted to be a Black Bear ever since she was a kid and she worked her butt off so she could be a Black Bear. The same is true with her new venture. Everyone has always commented on her beauty, and she’s wanted to do something like this for a long time.”

Since she wasn’t sure how she’d do, Whittier didn’t tell anyone except close family she was competing in last weekend’s competition, neither friends nor relatives, or even another local beauty pageant winner, Susie Stauble of Gray, who will represent Maine in the Miss America Pageant in January. Stauble, who was in attendance at the Miss Maine USA pageant Saturday night, was amazed to see her friend competing.

“She walked out on the stage and I was shocked. Not only because I wasn’t expecting it, but because she was so beautiful. She’s the perfect candidate. I’m really glad she won,” Stauble said.

Stauble was sitting with her mother Barbara, who was equally struck.

“She and my daughter Katie were close friends growing up. And as soon as she walked out I looked at Susie and said, ‘She’s the winner.’ She was very poised. You could tell she was going to win,” Barbara Stauble said.

Katie Whittier, known to many around the Lakes Region as a former standout high school and college basketball player from New Gloucester, won the Miss Maine USA title last weekend. The pageant was Whittier’s first foray into the world of pageantry, and qualified her to compete in the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas in April. (Photo courtesy of Tess J Photography)

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