Madeline Delp believes the Miss USA beauty pageant is ready for its first winner in a wheelchair — and she’s making strides toward making it happen.
Delp is a blonde beauty queen with a background that sets her apart from her competitors: after a car accident at 10 years old left her comatose, she awoke paralyzed from the waist down, and has since lived her life in a wheelchair.
For years, the accident caused depression and anxiety, though Delp was able to turn her negative thoughts around in her late teens, challenging herself to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina pageant at 20, she wrote in a recent essay for Glamour.
As fate would have it, she won, thrusting her into the spotlight and out of her shell as she traveled the state and met scores of new people.
Delp was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA in 2017, and now has her sights set on bigger goals, like becoming the first Miss USA to win in a wheelchair.
She has been building up to her dream by competing in the Miss North Carolina USA pageant the past two years.
“It was one of the most difficult and uncomfortable experiences that I’ve ever had,” she wrote of her first go-round. “But it was also amazing. Picture being backstage with girls who are towering above you, each of them with legs for days. I felt so insecure. I truly had to overcome a lot of that to be able to go out on stage. I didn’t win, but I did make the top 15, and I left determined to come back for the crown.”
This year, Delp placed in the pageant’s top 10, and also won the title of Miss Congeniality, she wrote in an Instagram post this weekend.
“I am very proud of how far I have come in order to be the strong woman you saw on stage, despite all that has tried to keep me down,” she wrote. “Is Miss USA ready for someone in a wheelchair? I believe so… maybe they won’t get it this year, but I certainly hope that is a barrier broken soon.”
She added that her goal each time she went onstage was to “remind myself that the confidence I have inside can shine bright regardless of the situation I am in or what people may think of me,” and that she hoped to instill that lesson upon everyone watching, too.
For this year’s pageant, Delp wrote in Glamour that she worked with a designer to craft a specially made gown that would incorporate her wheelchair, and also spent time with a trainer to get in shape.
Since the accident also left Delp with no control over her bladder, she teamed up with Aeroflow Urology, too, a company that supplies catheters and pads.
“It’s a challenge not to compare yourself to others, especially when you’re surrounded by some of the most beautiful women in the world,” she wrote in her essay. “But if there’s one thing my disability and living with incontinence has taught me, it’s that no matter how hard we try to be perfect, it’s our ‘flaws’ that really connect us.”
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Delp hasn’t let her wheelchair stop her from taking part in some serious adventures — she frequently uses her Instagram to share photos of her doing everything from horseback riding and base jumping to swimming with sharks and kayaking.
She was even featured in an August music video for American Idol alum Gabby Barrett’s single “The Good Ones.”
“I wanted the video to be authentic and genuine, as well as be captured just the right way, so finding Madeline to play our leading lady was such a gift!” Barrett told PEOPLE at the time. “Also, she was Miss Wheelchair USA 2017, which I think is amazing. I was so blessed to get to know her on set. She was so kind and radiated such light!”
As if that wasn’t enough, Delp is also the executive director of Live Boundless, an organization that aims to educate people on those with disabilities and provides equipment like wheelchairs to those in need worldwide.