BUILD program alumna Mikayla Holmgren makes history as the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in a Miss USA state pageant.
By Makenzi Johnson | Reporter
Mikayla Holmgren springs up from her chair with a gleeful laugh and grabs two cases from her closet that hold her pageant crowns. As she pulls each tiara from the box, light filters through the diamonds and creates patterns across her bedroom walls. Still, Holmgren’s face shines brighter than any of these diamonds – the chance to show her crowns is a chance to showcase just how hard she’s worked over the past few years.
As a 26-year-old woman with Down syndrome, Holmgren has not let anything hold her back from the things she loves.
“I have Down syndrome, but I’m a dancer, I’m a public speaker [and] I’m a college graduate,” Holmgren said.
Holmgren graduated from Bethel’s BUILD program in 2018, a two-year comprehensive educational experience for students with intellectual disabilities, and is one of many members of her family to attend Bethel. During college she mentored other students, attended Chapel, joined the Pray First team and spent late nights in the DC with her friends. The two years spent at Bethel helped give Holmgren the push she needed to enter the world of pageants, after a friend from school brought up the idea to her.
In 2015, Holmgren received a packet in the mail about a pageant for women with intellectual disabilities, called the Minnesota Junior Miss Amazing pageant. She entered the pageant hoping to learn something new, but she left with a newfound passion for the world of pageants.
In 2017, Holmgren became the first woman with Down syndrome to compete at Miss Minnesota USA. She won two awards, the Miss Minnesota USA Spirit Award and the Director’s Award. Holmgren plans to compete again in this summer’s Miss Minnesota USA Pageant – she already has her outfit hung up on her clothing rack, a long white and nude gown with sequins and sparkles decorating it.
“It fits me like a glove,” Holmgren said about her pageant gown. “I put it on and was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the one.’”
According to Holmgren, competing in pageants takes more than just walking across a stage with a smile – it also takes months of preparation. Before each competition, Holmgren prepares for interviews, picks out a gown, finds the right hair and makeup combination and practices walking in high heels. Her reason for doing it all is simple: She gets to make a difference by doing something she is passionate about.
“All my friends have special needs and that brings awareness and it inspires others. It makes people feel happy and feel more joy,” Holmgren said.
Bringing awareness to individuals with intellectual disabilities, especially women, is a major focus for Holmgren. The theme she chose for her platform and campaign is “dreaming big without limits.” The phrase started with just “dreaming big,” but she added the latter half because she wants people to realize that having a disability should not put limitations on what she does.
“A lot of times, those with special needs have limits and they’re not allowed to go and get their dreams … so that’s kind of how it came up,” Holmgren’s mom Sandi said.
Holmgren’s parents knew from the moment she was born that they weren’t going to let Down syndrome force them to shelter or protect her from exploring new opportunities.
“We don’t want to label her; I look past her disability,” Sandi said. “If she was a typical 22, 23, 24, whatever year-old, would we put limits on what she would do? Because she’s an adult and she’d make her own decisions… we want her to be looked at as Mikayla and not somebody with Down syndrome.”
Holmgren’s campaign has now led her to opportunities beyond pageant competitions. Along with pageantry, Holmgren has been asked by companies like Sephora Beauty, Sigma Beauty and the local Rosedale Center shopping mall to do modeling campaigns for their brands.
She’s also hosted fashion shows in order to raise money for both her campaign and Best Buddies, an organization she’s been involved in for several years that focuses on creating opportunities for people with disabilities.
The fashion shows, occurring over the past two years, have been made possible through the help of local boutiques in Stillwater that have lended clothing to the models and donated goody bags and special treats. Holmgren incorporates her love of dancing, which began at the age of six, by ending the event with a solo number. This year, the fashion show was held virtually due to COVID-19.
Holmgren’s love of pageantry and fashion has propelled her into her latest endeavor, which involves a much bigger stage than she’s used to. Holmgren is currently competing to be the first woman with Down syndrome to appear in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
Deciding to submit her casting tape for the SI Swim Search was something completely different and new for Holmgren and her family. It was an opportunity that she just couldn’t pass up.
“It’s there; it’s right in front of me and I just want to do it… I wanna try something new,” Holmgren said.
So this time, instead of choosing a sparkly, royal blue gown, Holmgren chose a white and navy striped bikini. The process was different than preparing for a pageant – Holmgren practiced reading a script for her audition tape, worked out, chose a swimsuit and found a hair and makeup team. It was a challenge, but one Holmgren was excited to learn about.
This experience is especially important for Holmgren because it gives her an even larger platform to spread her message of inclusivity and diversity for people with disabilities.
“It gives a good message… it makes a difference,” Holmgren said.