Madison Marsh was crowned Miss Colorado shortly before graduating from the US Air Force Academy.
The US Air Force second lieutenant went on to compete for — and win — Miss America on Sunday.
The 22-year-old is the first active-duty Air Force officer to compete in the Miss America pageant.
Miss Colorado Madison Marsh, a second lieutenant in the Air Force, traded her flight helmet for a tiara after she won the Miss America pageant on Sunday night.
The 22-year-old Arkansas native became the first active-duty Air Force officer to compete in the Miss America pageant.
Marsh graduated from the US Air Force Academy in June and was selected for training to become a military pilot. She's working on a two-year master's degree program in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
See photos of the newly crowned Miss America serving in her other uniform as an Air Force officer.
Miss Colorado to USAFA graduate
While enrolled at the US Air Force Academy, Marsh was drawn to pageant competitions as an extracurricular activity from her desire to do community service and public speaking.
"As a freshman at the academy, you might have a hard time finding your identity in a very new and challenging environment," Marsh told the Air Force Institute of Technology. "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."
Three years later, she was crowned Miss Colorado just days before graduating from USAFA and receiving her commission as a second lieutenant. The 22-year-old attends Harvard Kennedy School with the AFIT's Civilian Institution Programs, studying public policy. She's also set to participate in research on the early detection of pancreatic cancer at the Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Her mother died from pancreatic cancer in 2018, prompting Marsh's advocacy for patient care and research through the nonprofit named after her mom, the Whitney Marsh Foundation.
Serving in uniform and sash
Though pageantry and military service are different, Marsh said there were also a lot of similarities "because you're serving but in a different way."
"When I put on my uniform, I serve and I represent our country," she told Harvard's student newspaper, The Crimson. "When I put on the crown and sash, I'm serving, representing my community."
Trading a crown for a flight helmet
Marsh credits her time at the Air Force Academy not only for her success in becoming a second lieutenant and the full-ride scholarship to Harvard but also for her Miss Colorado crown.
"I don't think I ever would have gotten into Harvard if I wouldn't have gone to the Air Force Academy," Marsh told The Crimson. "I don't think I ever would have become Miss Colorado without the Air Force Academy because they have trained me and honed in on my leadership."
How military training helps pageant training
Pageants are known for their interviews, social-impact pitches, and evening gowns, but another big part of the competitions is fitness, an aspect that came more easily to Marsh because of her military training.
"Pageants are changing, and one of the ways is in what being physically fit means to women," Marsh told AFIT. "For me, it's great because I need to stay physically fit and in the gym for the military, so it already coincides with pageant training."
Stepping out on the airfield
Following her win as Miss Colorado, Marsh used her platform and her military commission to show young girls that "you don't have to play a conventional role," she told The Crimson.
"It's an awesome experience to bring both sides of the favorite parts of my life together and hopefully make a difference for others to be able to realize that you don't have to limit yourself," Marsh told AFIT. "In the military, it's an open space to really lead in the way that you want to lead — in and out of uniform. I felt like pageants, and specifically winning Miss Colorado, was a way to truly exemplify that and to set the tone to help make other people feel more comfortable finding what means most to them."
Camera-ready on a pageant stage and the cockpit
"I want people to know that you can do both because I feel like sometimes there's this negative stereotype about women in the military, and I hope that they can see that you can serve beyond your uniform," she said. "That's what I hope to do this year as Miss America and really pouring into my side of pancreatic-cancer research and advocacy for my mom."
Into the pilot's seat
Marsh dreamed of being a pilot or astronaut since she was young, attending space camp when she was 13 to meet professionals in person. Two years later, she started flying lessons to become a cadet, earning her civilian pilot's license at 16. Then, she decided to apply to the Air Force Academy.
"I heard it was a great institution to not only get a stellar undergraduate education but also put you on the track to become a pilot or maybe an astronaut," Marsh told AFIT. "So that's what sparked my interest to apply to USAFA."
Of all Air Force Academy graduates, 39 have become astronauts.
Preparing for takeoff
Marsh achieved her childhood dream of becoming a pilot. She was selected for the flight-school pipeline to become a military pilot, but she's still weighing her career options and personal passions for the future.
"Towards the end of my time at USAFA, I started to realize that my bigger passions were in policy-making and cancer research, so that's why I ended up at the Kennedy School," Marsh told AFIT.
"I don't want to be an astronaut anymore, so now I'm here for the people," she added. "I love having the opportunity to not only serve in my uniform but being surrounded by a group of people that also want to serve outside of the uniform through volunteering and community service."
'The sky is not the limit'
For the talent round of the Miss America pageant, Marsh delivered a passionate monologue recounting her experience of her first solo flight at 16 years old and its impact on her life.
"I'm flying at 3,000 feet, and there's no instructor here to check my speed, altitude, or runway spacing," Marsh said. "I'm 16 years old, and I alone must rely on my training instinct and determination."
"It's been more than six years since that first solo flight, and I'm now an active-duty officer for the United States Air Force," she continued, to applause. "Whether I'm seated in the cockpit or standing in my crown, I know the sky is not the limit."
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