OSHKOSH – Confetti still covers the lavish stage at Alberta Kimball Auditorium. Bright lights dim. Echoes of the big, noisy and tense state pageant fade. Brad Swelstad stands alone in the spot where 20 minutes earlier his girlfriend, Tina Sauerhammer, became Miss Wisconsin. Backstage, they embraced and Sauerhammer whispered, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
In the theater’s aisle, well wishers greet Sauerhammer – a medical doctor at age 22 – and that support continues late into this star-filled Saturday night in June at the post-pageant gala.
And Sauerhammer’s life adds another miraculous milestone.
She jumped directly from eighth-grader to college freshman. Enrolled at age 14 at UW-Green Bay, where her parents drove her to class and she nearly earned straight A’s. Entered UW-Madison School of Medicine at age 18. Became a doctor at 22 last month. Made plans to become a pediatric surgeon, with its relentless 7-year residency requirement, by 30.
Now, she’s called a viable candidate to win Miss America pageant. Attractive, friendly, quick to smile and poised. Excels at cello, an instrument she started learning when other 3-year-olds were watching “Sesame Street.”
That’s Tina Sauerhammer, Miss Wisconsin, M.D.
Now – 20 months after her father’s death when a kidney transplant never materialized – Sauerhammer, the reigning Miss Madison, will use the state pageant victory to trumpet organ and tissue donation in Wisconsin or, if she wins Miss America, nationwide.
Having dated her for more than two years, Swelstad, 28 and also a doctor, knows Sauerhammer’s background prompts wonder.
“People think that stuff that happens to her is easy, as if everything is a given,” he says. “It’s not. It’s hard work. It really is.”
Periodically during the two months before the state pageant, the State Journal followed Sauerhammer as she finished medical school and prepared for the Miss Wisconsin pageant.
Curled on a couch in her near West Side apartment in late May, Sauerhammer tackled the most blunt query: What is someone with so much intellectual promise in medicine doing in a beauty contest?
“That’s a loaded question,” she said at the time with a smile.
“Everyone stereotypes it. It’s a scholarship pageant, not a beauty pageant. I don’t see my career as a medical doctor and my involvement with pageants as two separate things. This gives me a voice to promote a platform I feel strongly about, which is organ and tissue donation. Unfortunately, people don’t listen unless you have a title. Combined with my medical degree, I could make such a difference.”
Sauerhammer finishes a full day researching stem cells at UW Hospital and Clinics’ pediatric surgery department. Dressed casually with her hands tucked in a plain warm-up jacket, she is almost 5-foot-4 and wears her long black hair tightly in a bun. Tonight, she will study from 7 to past midnight for the nine-hour medical board exam on May 10, a requirement before her upcoming graduation.
In the hospital’s cafeteria, between her research shift and exam studies, Sauerhammer sits and describes her life’s unusual path. Her parents, Randy and Oki, met when Randy served in the Air Force in Oki’s native South Korea. They married and moved to Green Bay, where Randy worked as a machinist at James River Corp. paper mill. Oki operates a business called Sewing With Love.
The Sauerhammers put Tina, their only child, in Montessori school at age 2. She flourished at the school, handling middle-school level instruction during third grade. In seventh grade, a teacher suggested that she skip high school to attend an out-of-town school for gifted students or advance directly to college. Sauerhammer chose the latter.
“I really came out of my shell the first day I entered college,” she says. “I used to be the most shy person ever. In (Montessori) middle school, I was very, very shy. I knew I had to be outgoing if I wanted to make friends and to make the most out of college.”
During medical school when she mentioned her age on rare occasions, classmates often asked if she was “some sort of Doogie Howser or something,” she says, referring to the former TV show about a teenage doctor.
During her second year, like many medical students, she questioned her career path.
“I wondered if I wanted to do this. I thought, I’m only 19 and I had the best years of my life in college and those are already done.’ I felt like I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders for my age. I wasn’t sure if I was ready.”
Motivation and determination kept her plunging forward.
“I do think God gave me a gift,” Sauerhammer says, “but I have to use that gift.”
She also searched for an activity away from school. At UW-Green Bay, she did well in the Miss Wisconsin Teen Coed pageant, advancing to the national competition. When a Miss Green Bay pageant representative suggested she try to become Miss Wisconsin, she agreed. A part-time sales associate at Urban Outfitters on State Street during her first two years of medical school, Sauerhammer also needed scholarship money, something the Miss Wisconsin pageant offers. (She will leave medical school with $120,000 in loans.)
The week she competed in June 2001, however, turned bittersweet. Since Tina was 7, her father had Wegener’s disease, which affects lungs and kidneys. He needed a kidney transplant, but his rare blood type and poor health made him an unlikely transplant match.
After the first night of preliminary competition in Oshkosh, the Sauerhammers returned about 50 miles to their Green Bay home. An answering machine message from the UW Transplant Center begged Randy to pick up the phone. A kidney donor had been found, but by the time Randy reached doctors, the short window of opportunity had passed. He did not wear a pager because he assumed he would be told if he had moved up the transplant list.
Tina, two nights later, finished as the pageant’s third runner-up.
Randy died the next winter on Jan. 4, 2002, his 45th birthday.
“The funeral director asked us questions about my dad,” Sauerhammer recalls. “My grandma said, ‘Randy’s goal was to see Tina graduate from medical school.’ That got to me. …
“In the past year,” she continues, “I think about how everything fits together into one puzzle. Why did I start college so early? Why did I end up going to medical school so early? Why did my father pass away so early? Maybe the whole reason I was in college and medical school early was so my dad could see me there and know I would graduate.”
When Sauerhammer left UW-Green Bay as the school’s youngest graduate ever at age 18, Randy described his daughter to a Green Bay newspaper.
“It’s a question between being in awe and being proud,” Randy said. “The fact that she is so dedicated is almost kind of scary.”
Officials estimate nearly 10,000 people line the streets for the 48th annual Monona Memorial Day Parade. Waving to the crowd is Sauerhammer, Miss Madison, riding in a borrowed Mercedes between the Madison Mallards’ yellow-beaked mascot and the Whitehorse Middle School drill team.
Afterward, she attends a reception in her honor, thrown by Miss Madison pageant organizers, at a Lake Monona home. Friends, pageant officials and Sauerhammer’s soft-spoken mother, who did alterations on Tina’s dozen pageant outfits and keeps her comments brief, gather in the roomy backyard under a tent.
“You wouldn’t have any clue from talking with Tina that she’s as young as she is,” says medical school classmate Patricia Hsu.
Another classmate, Nikki Joseph, Sauerhammer’s roommate, says a few medical school peers may have scoffed at doing medicine and a pageant.
“Probably some did. But nobody voiced it,” Joseph says. “When you see what Tina’s (organ donation) platform is, there’s a lot of education and awareness she can bring. Her platform ties in with what we do.”
Madison-area pageant backers believe they have the third Miss Wisconsin from Madison in 50 years. Madison, due to low interest, did not enter anyone in the Miss Wisconsin contest from 1998 to 2001.
No one exudes more enthusiasm for Sauerhammer than her coach, the energetic Ceil Schwalbach of Franklin in suburban Milwaukee. Schwalbach, a 20-year pageant mentor, resembles a veteran boxing trainer who uncovered a potential champion. She calls Sauerhammer her best student ever.
“She not only has that outer beauty, she has that inner beauty that is so incredible,” Schwalbach says. “She’s a person who can reach millions and there are very few women like that.”
Schwalbach owns a salon and day spa called From Hair On. Sauerhammer drives from Madison to the Milwaukee area on Tuesdays, Thursdays and some Sundays to work with Schwalbach in the weeks before the state pageant.
“I coach her completely,” Schwalbach says. “In other words: her wardrobe, her exercising, her dieting, her interview, the appeal of her talent (on cello), her evening gown and her swimsuit. What’s going to present her body best in her swimsuit? We have a personal trainer work with her. There are so many aspects to Miss America, believe it or not.”
Schwalbach trained with Sauerhammer the day before the reception and concentrated on strengthening abdominal and back muscles. Sauerhammer’s tan, meanwhile, is spray-on because she fears the potential health risks of tanning booths. Her diet consists of fruits, vegetables, salads, chicken and fish.
“No snacking or garbage food,” Schwalbach says, then adds quickly. “She doesn’t have a weight problem at all. But the thing is she’s competing against some of the best bodies. You don’t want her to lose points.”
Sauerhammer weighs 110 pounds and she says she wants to drop 5 pounds before the Miss Wisconsin pageant on June 21.
“I have not had ice cream or pancakes for the longest time,” she says and laughs, “and I crave it so much.”
Frank Sinatra croons in the background when Sauerhammer presents herself in several outfits that she will wear in the state pageant. There’s a bright orange suit and skirt for the interview portion.
“The question is,” Sauerhammer says as she walks around the tent in the pageant’s interview clothes, “do we take off the scarf?”
She removes it from her neck.
Schwalbach jumps in.
“Let’s do without it. You have a little more tan now.”
Sauerhammer and her roommates prepare to clear out their apartment. The roommates brace for lengthy medical residencies; Sauerhammer practices the cello and preps herself for the Miss Wisconsin pageant.
Sauerhammer practices for her pageant interview, rattling off statistics. Eighty-five percent of the population could be organ and tissue donors but only 50 percent of them sign up, she says.
She also trains with weights to help her in the swimsuit and evening gown categories. Does she feel like eye candy when onstage in a bikini?
She brushes off the question. “This is about staying fit and healthy,” she says. Miss America’s televised show, she adds, may skew viewers’ perception because the swimsuit portion counts for just 10 percent of the contestant’s score.
At the Miss Wisconsin and Miss America pageants, a two-minute talent piece counts 30 percent. Evening gown and an overall impression add 10 percent each to the five judges’ scorecards. A 12-minute private interview with the contestant provides 40 percent to the tally.
For talent, Sauerhammer chose the crowd-friendly pop instrumental, “Storm,” derived from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and recorded by classical/pop performer Vanessa Mae. Sauerhammer created background music by computer to present a rapid-fire beat.
Sauerhammer’s cello teacher Carina Voly, a member of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, realizes the crossover composition’s importance.
“The cello is such a classical instrument. It’s not necessarily a flashy instrument. It’s a calm and deep instrument,” Voly says. “This piece will be effective. It has a rock background.”
Nine of the 26 contestants for Miss Wisconsin competed in the pageant before this year. It’s a considerable number of returnees and includes last year’s third-place finisher Caitlin Morrall, the current Miss Milwaukee.
Contestants arrived six days ago and participated in a parade, miniature golf game and boat cruise. Interviews with judges, talent performances and evening gown and swimsuit preliminary competitions occurred over three days before tonight’s finals. Sauerhammer scored highest in the swimsuit contest among her half of the competitors.
The Kimball Auditorium fills with nearly 1,400 patrons, paying $35 per ticket. Moments after the national anthem, host and singer Beth McShane announces the 10 finalists, who perform their talent, from opera singing to a baton-twirling dance.
Sauerhammer’s snappy cello piece, complete with planned smiles toward the crowd, does well.
After the evening gown and swimsuit rounds, McShane names the judges’ final five. Morrall, having won the evening gown competition and performed a well-received jazzy ballet, appears to be the frontrunner.
The top five then sit on stools and answer almost laughably easy questions, such as “Why is early detection so important in breast cancer?” and “Why is music so important?” Sauerhammer gets asked why she enjoys tennis. She answers with a polite and brief response, “It’s the only sport I can play.”
Her second question mentions organ transplants and she offers insight that the other contestants can’t deliver by describing personal experience from her medical education.
Later, the host announces the results starting with the fourth runnerup. It whittles down to Sauerhammer and Morrall, who face each other and hold both hands together. Morrall is visibly shaking. The host names Morrall as first runnerup. Screams from Sauerhammer’s backers begin. Her arms full of flowers, she takes the winner’s walk. She pauses repeatedly to thank the judges.
Afterward, Vernon DeSera, one of the judges and a two-time Miss America judge, raves about Sauerhammer. He says her scoring ability in every category makes her “a very strong contender” for Miss America, which will have its pageant air live on ABC, from Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 20.
“She was quite impressive and she had to live up to her resume,” DeSera says. “What we found endearing about her was that she’s got a very humble, sweet spirit. She’s not pretentious at all.”
State pageant officials buzz about Sauerhammer’s chances in Atlantic City. She will be the second medical doctor to compete for Miss America, although the first one participated in 1992 when she was 26, the highest age allowed at the time. The age limit has since dropped to 24, and competing as one of the country’s youngest doctors could make Sauerhammer a national media darling whether she wins or not.
At Miss Wisconsin’s post-pageant reception in Oshkosh’s City Center, Sauerhammer poses for countless photos with other competitors and patrons. Kids ask her to autograph their programs.
ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” blares from speakers. If Sauerhammer had finished second, she would have returned to UW Hospital to continue her stem-cell research. Instead, she starts her platform’s campaign and, even if she doesn’t win Miss America, will travel about 20,000 miles across Wisconsin for 12 months pitching her cause at fairs, parades, community organization meetings and countless other functions. In fall 2004, she will begin up to 18-hour days as a surgical resident in a hospital.
Her inspiration to become Miss Wisconsin, she says, was on her mind as soon as she won.
“All I could think about was my dad,” Sauerhammer says, her ever-present smile fading briefly. “I wish he was here.”
(Post-script: Sauerhammer finished as the second runner-up for Miss America.)