The Road to Miss Rhode Island

Kelsey B. Swanson

Two years ago, Kelsey B. Swanson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Self-pity was not in her lexicon, so she continued her studies, despite surgery and a long recovery, and at the same time, forged ahead with another dream. Her courage and resolution paid off in September when the Cranston resident was crowned Miss Rhode Island USA 2017 on her third run at the title, qualifying to compete in the Miss USA national pageant in Las Vegas in June.

Swanson, a psychology major, was more interested in sports as a little girl, and says she was terribly shy. But two years ago, while already a student at URI, a friend urged her to try the pageant. She was a runner-up that fall, but found the experience more valuable than she’d expected. “I learned so much—on-stage presence, poise, speaking skills. I also made friends with a lot of the other women.’’

A month later, a drunken driver ran a red light and crashed into a car in which she was a passenger. Swanson, sitting in the back seat, was thrown forward and hit her head on the dashboard.

At the scene, she thought she was fine, but the next day as a precaution she went to the hospital for X-rays of her head. Her skull was intact, but doctors found something else alarming: a dime-sized tumor on her pituitary gland, pressing against her optic nerves. The tumor wasn’t cancerous, but she would go blind if it wasn’t removed.

“We caught it just in time,’’ says Swanson. “I was very lucky. I guess you could say that the car accident was a blessing in disguise.’’

She put a hold on surgery to compete in the August 2015 pageant. “I know people might have trouble understanding this, but I didn’t want to give up my dream,’’ she says. “The doctor said I could delay the surgery as long as I didn’t have any symptoms. I felt confident going forward.’’

Once again she was runner-up—“but losing made me even stronger.’’

Last fall came the four-hour surgery; while recuperating, she reduced her class load at URI but didn’t withdraw. Her professors, she says, were compassionate and understanding. “I had a very optimistic outlook,’’ she says. “The tumor wasn’t cancerous. The experience advanced me mentally in life.’’

And it steeled her for her third run at the beauty competition, held in September. “I was more determined than ever,’’ she says, training for months with daily workouts, a special diet, wardrobe selection and mock interviews.

When her name was called on stage, she struggled to hold back tears. Family members and friends weren’t so stoic and wept with joy. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,’’ she says. “My dedication paid off.’’

For the next few months, she’ll continue training for the national pageant—and studying. She expects to graduate next fall with a focus on child psychology.

Meanwhile, she’s fulfilling her pageant responsibilities in her free time, attending charitable events, including those for children in foster care. She’s also modeling.

The tumor has a 7 percent chance of growing back, but Swanson isn’t dwelling on that. She’s too excited about the national pageant—and life.

“Never give up on your goals,’’ she says. “Nothing worth it ever comes easy. The harder you work for something, the better it feels when you achieve it.’’

Photo: courtesy of Kelsey B. Swanson