GREATER SPRINGFIELD – For Rachel Koehler, participating in the Miss Massachusetts USA pageant is about more than a quest for a crown. Rather, the greatest triumph will come in being able to compete with self-confidence and a sense of empowerment while helping other young women achieve the same.
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Koehler, a 21-year-old Elms College senior from Granby, was selected to take part in the pageant on Nov. 22 and 23 at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium and broadcast on NBC, and hopes to utilize that opportunity to spread the word about the dangers of eating disorders.
Planning to use her own struggles as not only a cautionary tale, but also a lesson in perseverance, she said he hopes to inspire women to value themselves at the event – a preliminary round to the Miss USA contest in 2015 – while wearing a purple gown and swimsuit, the color of the National Eating Disorders Association.
“I want to show any girl that is wearing a mask that there is a way to be happy. I want to help them overcome self-image problems and be confident in themselves and truly be themselves. It is not easy but is definitely worth it,” she said. “It is so important that my message is conveyed because so many people are going through eating disorders, body image problems, dysmorphia problems.
“I want to show people that it doesn’t matter about your shape or size or how pretty you are – it is about being. Be confident and happy with who you are and it will get you far in life, much more than your outward appearance,” Koehler continued. “I want to help other girls be able to stand in a crowd of people and not care about comparing themselves because they are confident and secure in their own skin.”
She added that she hopes young women can see that they shouldn’t be afraid to break through conventional fitness mindsets in order to do what makes them happy.
“When I got heavily involved with fitness, nutrition, and lifting weights in the gym [it’s] something most women are scared to do because the norm is that lifting weights is something that ‘only guys’ do,” she said. “Well, that is not true; girls can lift weights and be strong and still be feminine.”
Koehler explained she spent many years of her own life battling image problems, bouts of depression and eating disorders before regaining control of her life.
“I suffered with body image problems and eating disorder problems for over five years of my life. I was never happy with how I looked and was always trying to look better than the people around me,” she said.
“My outward appearance was so important to me. I was miserable with my body and I never understood how people could be so happy and confident in their own skin,” Koehler continued. “This caused me to binge eat, to count calories in a way that was extremely unhealthy, which finally led me to bulimia but no one around me knew that I was bulimic. I did not want people knowing and I never wanted to admit that I had a problem.”
Seeking a way to cope with her disorder, Koehler eventually found inspiration in the success her Holyoke Catholic High School classmate Alisha Ciolek had in competitive fitness, earning her professional card with World Beauty Fitness and Fashion Inc., which sponsors national fitness pageants.
“I wanted to make a change and I saw how Alisha had and how lifting weights really transformed her body,” Koehler recalled. “She motivated me so much to get out of my old ways and to be happy and confident with who I really was as a person.”
As she began hitting the gym, Koehler got help along the way through online personal trainers and WBFF professionals Sean and Tiffany Larson, who she said helped educate her in how to properly train and care for her body, which, in turn helped her develop not only more confidence, but become a healthier person overall.
Eventually Koehler hired local coach Lisa Thomas of South Hadley as her training became more intense with the intention of taking part in a natural body building show with the Organization of Competition Bodies, but shortly before the competition, she came to realize once again a need for perspective and balance in her life.
“Around three to four weeks out from the show I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore because fitness was turning into my life and not a part of my life anymore,” she explained. “I needed to take a break and remember why I originally got heavily involved with fitness.”
It was during the following months that Koehler first heard about the Miss Massachusetts USA pageant and after researching the process, decided to take a shot and apply.
After a phone interview and an in-person assessment, Koehler learned that she had been accepted into the pageant, which will include an interview as well as swimsuit and evening gown competitions. For all three aspects of the competition, one criterion is the same – self-confidence.
With a new goal in mind, Koehler said she has refocused her training with the help of coach Josh Clay, also a WBFF member, who she credited with assisting with striking a balance between training and other aspects of life.
“He has taught me that it’s not all about being a woman who lifts weights, he has shown me and taught me to be a woman who inspires and motivates people outside of the gym,” she said.
In addition to lifting weights four to five times a week, Koehler participates in cross country for Elms College under coach Matt Dyer, running about 20 miles a week. She also works with Heather Jablonski, owner of The Zone Fitness Studio in Belchertown.
In addition to the fitness community, Koehler said she has also received support from family and friends.
“They are always helping me be the best person I could be and make God a part of it as well,” she said.
In order to take part in the contest, Koehler needs to raise $1,500 for sponsorship fees, hotel costs and other pageant-related expenses. To help in collecting donations, she has created a Go Fund Me page at www.gofundme.com/5lx470.
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