Atlantic City, N.J. The first woman with a visible disability to seek the Miss America crown wants judges to consider her disability only as an afterthought, if at all.
"I hope the judges look at me as a normal human being who's done a lot despite a disability," says Miss Iowa Theresa Uchytil, a 24-year-old baton twirler born without a left hand.
"I'm a world champion baton twirler. I graduated from Iowa State University. I'm a program manager for Gateway Computers. That didn't all happen because I have a disability.
"I hope the judges look at me that way, too, to see what I can do. I'd rather have them say, 'Oh, by the way, she doesn't have her left hand."'
Uchytil won't wear her prosthetic hand when she performs her baton-twirling routine on stage at Convention Hall. She wore it during last week's welcoming ceremony for the 51 contestants but won't during her evening gown appearance in the 80th annual Miss America Pageant on Saturday.
Uchytil, of the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, Iowa, took up the baton at age 6. She uses her left arm and elbow to catch and flip the baton but throws it exclusively with her right hand.
She is a national spokeswoman for the Shrine Hospital for Children, but says she isn't defined by her handicap.
"It's something I've lived with for 24 years," she said. "This, to me, is like wearing contact lenses or having braces."
Her breezy attitude came through at Monday's welcoming ceremony, when each of the contestants was asked to give an introductory statement.
Uchytil (pronounced oo-ka-till) walked up to the microphone and asked her fellow contestants to keep an eye out for the prosthetic.
"If you see one lying around, it's probably mine," she said.
Pageant officials say she is the first woman with such a disability ever to compete in the 79-year-old pageant. The only woman with a disability to win the crown was Miss America 1995 Heather Whitestone, who was deaf.
Miss America 1999 Nicole Johnson suffered from diabetes and competed while wearing an insulin pump hidden on her hip. Other contestants through the years have had medical problems that weren't outwardly apparent.
If she wins, Uchytil plans to spend her year as Miss America promoting the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"The ADA turned 10 years old this summer, but we haven't seen changes in attitudes, which continue to limit people from integrating. The fact that I'm here breaks down a huge barrier," she said.
"I'm not here to say every person with a disability should compete for Miss America or run for office. But I'm a shining example of what you can do."