When you hear the term “beauty queen,” you probably don’t imagine her wearing goalie pads and a mask. But Tara Wheeler, Miss Virginia 2008, is no ordinary pageant winner.
And after shaving her head to raise money for children with cancer, she may also be the only former Miss America contestant with no hair.
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Pediatric Cancer Foundation is a non-profit charity that raises money for research to find a cure for childhood cancer.
As part of a fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the former starting goalie for the Penn State Lady Icers hockey team pledged to shave her head if she raised $500,000 for pediatric cancer. She fell short of that goal, but she still promised to shave her head once her reign as Miss Virginia ended. And after raising more than $50,000, she followed through on her pledge on Sept. 21, surrounded by cancer survivors, supporters and news crews.
As Miss Virginia, Tara was an ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network and visited numerous children’s hospitals, where she met boys and girls undergoing treatment for cancer, which often made their hair fall out. When she heard that other kids sometimes made fun of them because they didn’t have hair, Tara got the idea to cut off her own hair to raise money and show support for kids with cancer.
“A couple of months ago I met a 4-year-old girl named Jessie who had just been diagnosed with cancer, and she had all her hair and was doing OK,” Tara says. “Her mother e-mailed me recently and told me Jessie had lost all of her hair and was having a really hard time with it. I told her to tell Jessie that in a few weeks, I was cutting off my hair, too, and that only the coolest kids are bald. She said that made her day.”
Just call her a good teammate. Inspired by the character Julie “The Cat” Gaffney in “Mighty Ducks 2,” Tara started playing hockey when she was in third grade.
“I was the only girl on the ice, and the guys said, ‘What makes you think you can play with us?’ ”
With hard work, she quickly showed she could compete with anyone. She proved that by playing for her high school team in Woodbridge, Va., as well as with the Little Caps and Prince William Panthers girls’ programs.
“Hockey taught me courage, it taught me persistence, and it taught me to not let anyone else decide what you can and can’t do,” she says.
At an early age, she realized she could be a role model for other girls.
“For a while, I would tuck my hair up under my helmet, because sometimes when the other team found out I was a girl, they would be overly rough, or they’d be mean. So I’d hide my hair to make it look like I was a boy.
“But then I started seeing girls in the stands watching our games, and I thought, ‘What if one of those girls wants to play hockey and she’s nervous? Maybe she’d want to play if she knew there was a girl on the ice too.’ So I started to let my hair come down in the back.”
These days Tara is using her journalism degree as a fan reporter for the Washington Redskins on Comcast SportsNet.
“I think I have the coolest job in the world. I get paid to tailgate and talk to fans and watch football games,” she says.
She’s also done some work with the Washington Capitals, including shootouts with some of the players, and hopes to have other opportunities to cover hockey.
Even with her reporting career and community work, Tara still finds time to play recreational hockey.
“I think every men’s league in the Washington area has found out that if they need a substitute goalie, I’ll play,” she says with a laugh. “There have been times I’ve played five times in one week – everything from the A league to beginner teams.”
She’s even found ways to incorporate hockey into her charitable work. She’s a big supporter of the American Special Hockey Association, which organizes programs for people with developmental disabilities, and the USA Warriors Ice Hockey program, for injured military veterans.
One day, she may be able to let her hair down under her helmet again – but she says it doesn’t really matter.
“Being a beautiful person is so much more than your hair,” she says. “It’s more than your clothes, makeup, weight or skin. It’s about doing beautiful things for others.”
Mark Miller is a volunteer with the American Special Hockey Association and tweets at twitter.com/specialhockey.