National royalty resides in Sauk Centre now that Sara Peterson has been crowned Ms. Woman United States as of Oct. 7. With her new regalia, she is eager to use her position to advocate for better mental health care for America’s veterans.

“It’s been kind of surreal this week, just recouping from lack of sleep and the time change and then going right back to work,” Peterson said. “Next will be implementing my plan over the next 12 months with what I want to get done when I have a crown and sash to help me get my voice out there.”

Peterson grew up in Warroad, graduating from Warroad High School in 1987. As a girl on a farm with horses, she was not interested in beauty pageants and considered herself more of a tomboy.

About 30 years ago, Peterson married a Marine and lived with him in North Carolina. Her husband was part of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and when he returned from his deployment, Peterson saw his experience had changed him, giving him nightmares and other issues. Now, seeing her significant other, Troy, and her veteran friends go through those same experiences are the reasons she is an advocate for the military and their mental health.

In 1999, Peterson joined the Isanti Fire Department and served with them for 11 years. She later lived in Avon and is a human resources professional for Blattner Company in Avon. She also volunteers at Eagle’s Healing Nest in Sauk Centre, so when the lease was up on her home, she decided to live closer to where she volunteered and moved to Sauk Centre about six months ago.

Peterson has done much fundraising for veterans with organizations including Wounded Warrior Project, Wounded Warrior Adventures and Operation First Response. She also participates in races to raise money and awareness; she has run about 4,000 miles in the last 18 months, 1,000 of those miles being completed in 10 weeks last May and June.

Peterson’s daughter, Mandy Schneider, has been in pageants for about seven years, winning Ms. United States in 2020; similar to her mother, she is an advocate for mental health awareness for middle and high school students and is working toward her master’s degree in counseling. The United States National Pageants has eight divisions for women and girls, and a couple of years ago, Schneider suggested Peterson try out for the division she qualified for, Ms. Woman United States. Peterson was initially hesitant to try out for it but later agreed to it.

“I’m kind of the tomboy, the firefighter, the behind-the-scenes kind of person, not always dressed in heels,” Peterson said.

First, Peterson entered the state level competition in Brainerd in August 2020, Schneider running as well in her own division. In many behind-the-scenes interviews, she had to learn to share about herself and her platform clearly and concisely, and her onstage appearances were preceded with hours of choosing outfits, learning walking patterns across the stage and learning how to walk in 5-inch heels. Her efforts paid off, though, as she was crowned Ms. Woman Minnesota.

“I was kind of in shock,” Peterson said. “It was like, I’m representing Minnesota and also the vets, so I need to make sure I can use that time as much as I possibly can.”

Peterson moved to Sauk Centre between pageants; she and Schneider were judges at the Miss Sauk Centre pageant July 15 in Sauk Centre.

The week of the national pageant was Oct. 4-7 in Las Vegas. Where Peterson had been Schneider’s sort-of manager for pageants before, the roles were reversed this year.

“She made sure everything was set out, making sure I had everything backstage,” Peterson said. “You go from your hotel to the location, and then you have to have everything there, everything from earrings to the shoes you’re wearing and the evening gown, plus food because you’re going to be gone all day. At 7 a.m., you’re in hair and makeup, and it runs until 11 o’clock at night.”

Through the pageant, Peterson got to meet many women from across the country; they had met before via Facebook and online group chats, but the pageant was, for many, the first time they met and talked in person.

The pageant semifinals were Oct. 5, during which Peterson was selected as one of the top five. The next day, she and the other four women competed again, leaving the stage without knowing who had won.

The day of the crowning, Oct. 7, Peterson returned to the stage with the other four contestants. Before they called the runners-up, the judges announced the winners for the competition sections: interview, swimsuit and evening gown. Peterson had won all three.

“I have to stand there, and they go from the fourth runner-up, third runner-up and the second runner-up,” Peterson said. “I’m shaking, trying not to cry, and then we’re down to the two, and then they announce the first runner-up, and then I knew I’d won.”

When the outgoing Ms. Woman United States, Joanna Trailov, came onstage to give her crown to Peterson, Schneider was also there to celebrate with her mother.

The next day, Peterson had more behind-the-scenes business to complete, including signing contracts and getting official photos taken. Finally, she flew back to Minnesota in the evening.

As Peterson returned to her office on Monday, she found flowers and her picture everywhere as her co-workers celebrated her win. She has received many more congratulations in-person and online from family and friends, particularly Eagle’s Healing Nest.

As Ms. Woman United States, Peterson is looking forward to being a part of events from Sauk Centre to anywhere else in the nation, using her position to better advocate for veteran mental health. From her experience, there are plenty of resources within the military to care for affected veterans, but there is also a trend of telling these veterans to not utilize those resources or risk losing potential promotions, their firearm or their job.

“My goal is to get out there in front of our senators, governors and commissioners of veterans’ affairs and get that environment changed as much as I possibly can over the next 12 months,” Peterson said. “Mental illness is the same as breaking your arm. If something happens and you’re depressed or you’re anxious or you saw something you need to work through, why wouldn’t you go to a doctor to help you work through it?”