Were I a judge in the Miss America Pageant, a capacity in which I like to think I would be distinctly over-qualified to serve, I would seek to distinguish America’s great beauties and talents by their knowledge of . . . hockey. The 2009 Miss America Pageant will be held in January in Las Vegas, and the pageant’s representative from Virginia — Woodbridge’s Tara Wheeler — is poised to answer any hockey question put to her.
She’s a star goalie, you see.
I found out about Tara Wheeler in an odd and beautiful way: she’d found out about ‘Pond Hockey’s’ screening next Monday night at the Avalon Theater, wanted to attend, wanted to help promote hockey, and so she emailed me. At noon on Thursday I was at Kettler Capitals interviewing Jose Theodore. At 7:30 last night I was on the phone interviewing my second goaltender of the day — one who just happened to have the title of Miss Virginia 2008.
Tara Wheeler, Miss Virginia 2008, is one of the great dichotomies I’ve ever encountered: already judged to be one of America’s most beautiful women, but also so accomplished a hockey goalie that at 17 she attended a tryout for the 2002 U.S. women’s Olympic Hockey team. She didn’t make the team, but she would go on to enjoy a standout career at Penn State, rewriting numerous team goaltender records. As Miss Virginia, which is a full-time job requiring 3,000-4,000 miles of travel a month, Wheeler canvasses the state addressing students, advocates for a notable and worthy children’s charity, the Children’s Miracle Network, highlights the dangers of smoking as part of the group Right Decisions, Right Now, and champions the cause of . . . hockey.
“Yes, absolutely I want to raise the profile of women’s hockey,” she told me, pride beaming in her native Louisville, Kentucky, voice.
This hockey season Wheeler will, in her capacity as Miss Virginia, don all of her goaltender’s gear at a Norfolk Admirals’ American Hockey League game and participate in a charity shootout, facing shots from Admirals’ players during a first period intermission.
“Somehow I’ve got to get unstinky after that first intermission shootout, quickly get Miss Virginia-like, and sign autographs during the second intermission,” she told me with a laugh.
It’s difficult to imagine Wheeler stinking at anything.
Wheeler was an Army brat, her father’s military career moving the family from Kentucky to Massachusetts and eventually to Woodbridge and Ft. Belvoir. She traces the formation of her love for hockey to the 3rd grade, while in Massachusetts. She was introduced then to the Mighty Ducks’ movies.
“I wanted to be Julie the Cat,” she explained, alluding to the female goaltending hero in D2. “I told my parents, ‘Mom and dad, I’m gonna be a goalie like Julie the Cat.’ They said, ‘ok.’
And that’s all she’s ever been — a goalie. After the Mighty Ducks’ inspiration she began playing street and in-line hockey — “always in net” she’s eager to remind. She didn’t make it out onto the ice until her freshman year of high school, at Garfield in Woodbridge. As there was no school team for her to play on, she joined the all-boys’ Prince William Panthers club team. It wasn’t until her senior year at Garfield that a school team was formed, an amalgamation of three schools — Garfield, Woodbridge, and Potomac. Again, though, she was the lone girl on the squad. But she was good.
“A lot of the fathers of my teammates would say to their sons, ‘Who’s that guy in net, he’s pretty good!’” she told me with pride.
As she began to look at colleges with her father in the spring of 2001 she made a pit stop of sorts in Walpole, Mass., site of an Olympics regional tryout before the 2002 Winter Olympics. Hundreds of girls tried out. More than 20 goalies showed up. The tryouts lasted four days, Wheeler making it through to the end of the second day before being cut.
“It was really my first immersion in girls’ hockey,” she noted. “I had no basis for evaluating myself against girls because all I’d really known was competition with boys.”
Wheeler’s performance at the Olympics tryout was all the more impressive considering how many girls were not only Division I collegians but many nearing the end of their eligibility. She was facing shots from many older, much more physically mature young women. And she impressed her competitors.
“I remember some of the girls telling me, after I was cut, ‘You’ve got to play college hockey.’ That was huge for my confidence.”
Wheeler’s performance in Walpole attracted the attention of the women’s hockey coaches at Penn State. They recruited her hard.
Attracted to the military by her father’s service, Wheeler earned a scholarship to attend Penn State as an Air Force cadet. She went ROTC all four years in State College. I asked her how she balanced the rigors of a commitment as an Air Force reservist while pursuing a significant intercollegiate athletic career.
“Every day from 5 a.m. til 6 I was in ROTC, and then I’d go straight onto the ice at 6:30 with my teammates, and we were on the ice four days a week. You make sacrifices of course with that [schedule], but I found great reward from it.”
Penn State’s women’s team competes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, a level down from D-I and scholarship rosters. As a sophomore she was named to the second team in her level’s national tournament, and later on she’d win the Jack Smyrl Award for having the lowest goals-against in the ACHA.
She suffered a back injury late in her college hockey career and was eventually honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserves in 2006. She graduated in 2006 with a degree in journalism.
While in college, Wheeler dabbled with beauty pageants. She won the Miss Pittsburgh pageant as a senior in 2005, but she failed to make the top 10 contestants in the subsequent Miss Pennsylvania. She competed in the Miss Arlington Pageant earlier this year, winning it. That qualified her for Miss Virginia, during the last week of June in Roanoke. She won.
“I went there believing I could do it, believing I was different. I played hockey, I was in the Air Force.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to cry, but I ended up balling my eyes out,” she said, laughing.
“It changes your entire life.”
Next up is Miss America, in January. Wheeler loves what the Miss America Pageant tangibly does to women’s lives.
“I want to draw attention to the Miss America program — it is the largest provider of scholarships for women in the world,” she said.
I asked her what she liked best about hockey.
“What don’t I like about hockey!
“As a goalie, you feel invincible in all those pads. I love everything about being a goalie.”
I also asked Wheeler if she’d ever played hockey outdoors.
“Once, at Penn State. It had a roof over [the sheet], but it was outdoors, and it was cold. We played at daybreak. It was the coolest experience of my hockey career. I watched the sun rise up over the ice.”
Referencing Monday night’s pond hockey movie at the Avalon Theater, the beauty queen asked me if I wanted her to wear her Miss Virginia crown to the screening.
“No, a touque,” I replied.