To say that Madison Marsh is an overachiever is an understatement. The 22-year-old is an accomplished pilot with an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from the US Air Force Academy (USAFA). Now a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force, Marsh is currently pursuing a master's degree in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Oh, and on January 14, 2024, she became the first active duty service member to be crowned Miss America!
Marsh decided to compete in pageants as an extracurricular activity during her first year at USAFA.
"As a freshman at the Academy, you might have a hard time finding your identity in a very new and challenging environment," she said. "My cousin had competed in pageants for a long time, and one of the big things about it that I love is the community service aspect and the focus on public speaking."
Marsh decided to represent Colorado, where USAFA is based. Three years later, in May 2023, she was crowned Miss Colorado, qualifying her for the Miss America contest. Marsh was one of 51 contestants, representing all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. After three nights of preliminary competitions, the field was narrowed down to just 11 semi-finalists.
To be selected as one of the five finalists, the 11 remaining contestants competed in four additional categories. They included a talent competition. Marsh cannot sing or dance. However, a new option allows contestants to perform a 90-second monologue. The 22-year-old captivated the judges and audience with a story about her first solo flight at age 16.
Pageant contestants must also articulate a community project they are passionate about and will pursue if crowned Miss America. For Marsh, that was easy. She talked about the Whitney Marsh Foundation, founded in honor of Marsh's mother, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. In the past five years, the non-profit has raised over a quarter of a million dollars for pancreatic cancer research.
"My mom was a huge runner, even when she was going through chemotherapy treatments," said Marsh. "When we talked about ways to raise money, we wanted it to remember who my mom was and not what cancer had made her. So we started the Whitney Marsh Foundation and specifically hosted a 5K and 10K run every year based out of our hometown in Fort Smith, Arkansas."
Marsh plans to spend her year-long tenure as Miss America educating the public about pancreatic cancer, which is curable if diagnosed in time. She also hopes to use the platform to encourage young girls to follow their dreams regardless of how lofty they may seem.
"I'm very excited to get to represent women who can break stereotypes," Marsh said after her win. "You can achieve anything … If I can come from a small town, not being a part of the pageant community, step into this role, so can you."
Resources: Stripes.com, militarytimes.com, theguardian.com