Written by Brandy Centolanza

Miss Virginia Rosemary Willis, whose platform is “Get Moving Today for a Healthier Tomorrow,” has always been active, even as a child.

“Growing up, I played almost every sport imaginable,” recalls Willis, a Chesapeake native who started playing team sports at age 3. “Once I got into high school, I chose field hockey and soccer, and both taught me discipline, teamwork, time-management, leadership, how to lose gracefully and how to work hard to succeed.”

In high school, Willis suffered a concussion in a wave-skiing accident, which resulted in minor brain damage that affected her short-term memory, balance, hearing, cognitive skills and her ability to run. Her neurologist prescribed rest, with no rigorous cardiovascular training for a year.

“It was devastating news,” says Willis, who had a difficult time accepting her fate. “Having been active most of my life, this was a really hard challenge for me. When I wasn’t exercising, I didn’t sleep as well, my moods were down and I couldn’t focus as well on my school work. I struggled with weight gain, poor nutrition and poor self-esteem.”

Willis sought help and discovered alternative ways to stay fit.

“I was able to do other exercises like yoga and lifting weights to give my body the respect it deserved,” Willis says. “They say when you lose something, you begin to realize how important of a role it really played in your life. For me, I realized how much I loved to exercise because of the way it made me feel strong and think positively about myself.”

Now, as Miss Virginia, Willis, who entered the pageant circuit at the suggestion of a friend, travels the commonwealth and encourages others to view fitness the same way.

“A lot of my work for my platform is through education on the benefits of exercise and nutrition, inspiring and motivating kids and parents to make the healthy and sometimes more difficult decision,” Willis says. “Exercise gave me back the confidence I lost. It helps all kids do better in school, maintain healthy muscles and bones and become more involved in their communities. My experience became a catalyst for my passion to be an educator on the importance of an active lifestyle to help others overcome whatever their obstacle to getting healthy is.”

Willis is a senior majoring in government at the College of William and Mary, although she has taken the year off to fulfill her pageant responsibilities and prepare for the Miss America contest, which will be held in Las Vegas on January 12 and will be televised on ABC. During her time at William and Mary, Willis has helped fellow students get fit as well, as a fitness instructor at the William and Mary student recreation center. She has also worked with a childhood obesity weight management program at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Newport News, designing workouts for the participants and teaching courses on self-respect and making healthy choices.

These days, though, she is readying herself for the possibility of becoming Miss America.

“My schedule is crazy, so it’s hard to have consistent workouts, but I’m learning how to work out on the go,” she shares. “Preparing for the pageant is harder than most people think, especially when traveling as Miss Virginia at the same time. Talent is 35 percent of my score and the interview is 25 percent, so those categories are my biggest focus. If I am healthy and happy because of my fitness, I’ll be more confident in those categories too.”

Once the pageant is over, she is looking forward to continuing to encourage others to reach their health goals, as well as continuing to find ways to reach her own, which include one day working with a non-profit organization that promotes health and wellness in the community and in schools as well as finishing another half marathon.

“I’m competitive by nature, so for exercise I like a challenge and something fun,” she says. “I’m always switching up my cardio and weight-training workouts to keep things
interesting, but nothing beats running in
the great outdoors.”

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