URI student Kelsey Swanson crowned Miss Rhode Island USA 2017

Battled brain tumor to win pageant on third try

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Kelsey B. Swanson, of Cranston, a student at the University of Rhode Island who was crowned Miss Rhode Island USA 2017 in September. Photo courtesy of Kelsey B. Swanson.

KINGSTON, R.I., Oct. 26, 2016—Two years ago, University of Rhode Island senior Kelsey B. Swanson was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Pity was not in her lexicon.

Not only did she continue her studies, despite surgery and a long recovery, she forged ahead with a dream that involved physical demands and, above all, persistence.

In September, the Cranston resident was crowned Miss Rhode Island USA 2017, qualifying to compete in the Miss USA national pageant in Las Vegas in June.

Swanson, 22, who is studying psychology at URI, is still in disbelief. “Winning was the best feeling in the world, after all the hard work I’ve put in and all I’ve been through. I tried three times—and finally made it. It wasn’t easy.’’

Many people would’ve wilted under the pressure Swanson endured over the last few years, but Swanson says the challenges made her even more resilient.

Raised in Cranston’s Alpine Estates neighborhood, Swanson was a jock as a little girl, more likely to kick a soccer ball than play dress-up. Beauty pageants seemed out of reach, and it didn’t help that she was terribly shy.

After graduating from Cranston West High School, she enrolled at URI, immersing herself in college. Two years ago, a friend urged her to compete in the Miss Rhode Island USA pageant, saying she looked like Olivia Culpo, who won the Miss Universe pageant in 2012 and is also a Cranston native. Swanson agreed, quickly overcoming her shyness.

She was runner-up in the fall 2014 pageant, but the experience was so positive she vowed to compete again. “I learned so much—on-stage presence, poise, speaking skills. I also made friends with a lot of the other women.’’

A month later, tragedy struck. 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 alarming and unrelated to the accident: a dime-sized tumor on her pituitary gland, pressing against her optic nerves. Thankfully, the tumor wasn’t cancerous, although doctors told her 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.’’

Swanson wasn’t about to let a brain tumor get in the way of pursuing her second pageant, this one in August 2015.

“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.’’

The surgery a few months after the pageant lasted four hours. Entering through her nose, doctors removed the tumor and filled the remaining hole with fat from her stomach. Recovery at home in Cranston was tough: headaches; dizziness; fatigue.

She reduced her class load at URI, but never withdrew. Her professors, she says, were compassionate and understanding. “I had a very optimistic outlook,’’ she says. “The tumor wasn’t cancerous, and they didn’t have to cut open my head. The experience advanced me mentally in life.’’

And it steeled her for the third beauty competition, held Sept. 11 at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence. “I was more determined than ever,’’ she says. Again, she trained for months to prepare—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—finally.’’

For the next few months, she’ll continue training for the national pageant—and studying at URI. She expects to graduate in the fall of 2017, with a focus on child psychology.

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

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,’’ says Swanson. “Nothing worth it ever comes easy. You have to push for what you want. The harder you work for something, the better it feels when you achieve it. Everyone deals with adversity, but it’s the ones who overcome it who rise to the top and succeed.’’