Finally ....

Finals. It says it in the word - final. It's the final event. It's the final day. Its .... final. I sit in the back a nervous wreck. Waiting for all the opening hoopla to finish to get to the good stuff. I can't breathe. I want to push fast forward to get to the moment that counts. Top 15.

I hate this moment actually. I hate the suspense. I love hearing their names but what I hate is the "not hearing." One by one they call out Jr princesses. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Then .... Gulf Shores, Kailah Fresina. Little miss Kai got her top 15 - finally. Two years ago she made her first IJM appearance and didn't break top 10 but was the 11th spot by one point. She didn't attend last year, but this year, she finally made it.

Then the 7th spot. Then on the eighth spot, I hear "Gumbo State, Addison Plauche." Remember her, right? Yea .... so did the judges! She worked hard also, and today, she finally made top 15 on her second consecutive try.

By now I grab my things, tell my princess moms to text me which of my three breaks and I'll stay upstairs. I head towards Nikki to be directed to the dressing room for a very quick change. I swear this part of competition - the quick change - needs to be an Olympic sport. I ran around the ballroom, up 29 steps (yes, I counted), down the hall, and into the dressing room. I filter through the garment rack to find clothes to setup everything in about 8 seconds. I went back for Kailah's and realized I was in the princess section. My heart skipped a beat to see "Gabriela Gonzales" and I went through the rest of the list. No Hannah. No Natalie. My heart sank. I can't breathe, again. I took a moment to gather myself and focused on my two JPs. We had a quick change. Opening number to fun fashion. Earrings. Shoes. Outfit. Hair and makeup. 90 seconds. I try to prep the moms for this SUPER quick change, but most often I'm the one who does this anyway. Gonzales enters. I look over to check on them - Claudia gives me thumbs up. She's got this. This is their third nationals, and third time making top 15. Seasoned pros.

Plauche and Fresina model fun fashion. I run back as soon as Plauche exits the stage because I know we have a what feels like 2 miles to run before getting to the dressing room and changing to evening wear, then running back to get to the stage. I change Addie in about 85 seconds (I'm getting faster!) and put her in line. I look Kailah and Addie in the eye and tell them: "This is your evening wear. This is your last chance to steal those judges' hearts. Go slow. Smile. Live in the moment." Then I go on to tell them that this is the last time I will see them. Concern instantly runs across their tiny, precious faces. I tell them exactly what will happen next and tell them about top five, where to go, smile, etc. But I focus more on what to do if they don't break top five. Now you may be asking yourself, "Why in the world would you think that and WHY would you tell a 7 year old she won't make it!!!" Well I didn't tell them they aren't going to make top five! I told them they are beautiful and they worked hard for this moment. I tell them I'm so proud of them. I tell them they are destined for great things but I also tell them how to be graceful in the face of the unexpected. I remind them to be thankful they made top 15 at all. I remind them to think of their friends who did not and how sad they may be. I remind them to say a prayer to give thanks. I remind them that the outcome of this competition does not define who they are as a person, but will give them experience to be better next time.

As I look Addison in her big, bright blue eyes, she holds my hands. She listens. She lets it sink in, and then she understands. She used her tiny hands to cup my cheeks and said, "Miss Erin .... Thank you. I love you." I was caught completely off guard by her actions and her words. Her words hit my heart and I was left breathless once again by this seven year old's reaction. I grabbed her and gave her a big hug and whispered back, "I love you too." I was about to cry so before the tear fell from my eye, I turned and walked away as they took her to line up and go on stage. She stood there, smiling, with her hands folded together, hanging down in front of her dress. She watched me leave, never taking her eyes off me. I looked over my shoulder and as the door closed behind me, she gave me one more half-smirky signature Addison smile. The door closed behind me and I could finally breathe. It was all out of my hands now. My part was finally done.

The girls modeled beautifully in evening wear. Kailah, Addie, and Gabriela were all perfect. Just to be in that top 15 for both divisions was amazing. IJM always has elite competition. As intermission began, the most dreaded part of competition creeped upon me now. The part where I have to face the families and TCM girls who did not make top 15. I wait to see their faces and read their actions to know what I need to tell them. Are they devastated? Are they fine? Are they barely holding it together? Do they even understand? Then, there are the mothers. Are they devastated? Are they fine? Are they barely holding it together?

Now - first let me just say - some of my girls truly put in the work for a title. Some work a tad bit harder, go the extra mile, while others occasionally "phone it in" and just rely on luck or wit, or something that will advance them to the next round. Sometimes lessons have to be learned in order for a person to grow, evolve, and be molded into the person they need to become in order to be the person they need to be to change the world. It does not happen overnight. So when they work hard, I mean REALLY hard, I take this loss personally and feel like it's all my fault. When they call it in, I still hurt for them to feel the pain, but I know that this tough pill is a lesson they must learn. - But, it still sucks! I can't and will not stand only in the celebration(s) of the girl(s) who advanced. I hurt for those who didn't make the cut. I personally feel like I have failed them. I personally feel responsible for the defeat.

When I see Hannah, I realize she is barely holding it together. She does not want to cry in front of me. She holds it in. I bring her in for a hug and kiss her head, telling her that she was perfect to me and that I couldn't have asked her to do anything different. (And she truly was fantastic considering this was her first big international competition!) I tell her I'm proud of her and that I already have a feeling where her journey will bring her. She smiles softly and nods her head. Then, her mother enters. Her mother is over the moon proud of her and doesn't miss a beat to tell Hannah this. Hannah leans in for a hug and starts crying. As you now know, I do not like public crying after a pageant loss from my girls but today was different because Hannah needed to express her emotions in order to process the positives from this week. I saw her mother's pride in her daughter and I knew Hannah would come back stronger than ever. (And she did bounce back with her giggling and precious personality!)

I finally see Natalie. I saw her mother earlier and Amanda said "I'm okay," but I knew it wasn't exactly true. I know better to wait than to press it. So I read Natalie's actions and I expected sadness but what I get is a beautiful smile and laughter. Natalie is a rare jewel. She's so humble. She's so graceful. She's so .... Natalie. I know Natalie has a very special journey ahead of her. I still hurt for her and Hannah but I realize that Natalie has been working overtime to help Hannah stay positive in order to finish the show. Natalie never once thought about herself but instantly thought of others. She's always been like that. She is a little lady whose actions always speak louder than words ever could. She walked up to me and said, "Hey Miss Erin." I reply, "Hey Nat." I'm still trying to read her. She gives me that smile that I know all to well. No words are needed. That one smile tells me that she's disappointed but she's okay. Natalie is strong. She refuses to let people say she "can't." She refuses to let obstacles fall in her path. She refuses to let someone get the best of her. Yes, all this came from one smile. So I give her my half-smile, "meh" face. I shrug my shoulders. She races to me and gives me a hug. She squeezed me a little tighter than normal, and I know that this translates into "I am sad. I need minute. Give me this moment and I'll be okay." So I squeeze her back, lay my chin on her head, and whisper to her, "You have my heart, and you are awesome." She takes one deep breath and releases. She looks up to me and I expect a tear or an emotionless face but instead I get a true Natalie smile. Just like that, this little lady bounced back and went back to focusing on making Hannah smile.

Intermission is now over and everyone is changed for the IJM color walk. This is time filler before they call out the top five in both groups. I need a moment. Somewhere between all that and this I found a quiet corner and broke down. I couldn't hold it in any more. Between feeling like a failure and trying to feel happy I had too many emotions so I just cried. 30 seconds - then I needed to get it together to finish the show. I'm afraid to admit maybe I'm doing this all wrong. I'm broken for my babies who just had their hearts broken. I'm happy for my babies who still have a chance but I can't find one emotion to stick with so I cry. (15 seconds left) Am I taking this all to personally? Am I being silly reacting this way? Why is this affecting me like this? (5 seconds) Then I finally realize it's because it is personal to me. I love these girls and their families and our journey together is felt by our entire TCM family. I may not be a conventional coach, but I never liked following a crowd anyway. (Time's up). I get myself together, say a prayer, and get back in the ballroom. Game face mode once again.

Top 5 called in Jr Princess and my two did not make it. Darn. But I was still riding the excitement from Fresina and Plauche breaking top 15 so that was a success regardless. I'll take it - gladly, I will take it.

Top 5 called in princess and Gabriela Gonzales was the first one called. OMG! She did it! She broke top five. (Now you should know last year at another pageant, Gonzales won 1st runner-up and we were elated!) I ran to meet her family in the front row and sat on the floor. Finally, the results are called out. 4RU - it wasn't Gonzales. (Breathe) 3RU - it wasn't Gonzales. (Heart beat increases, breathe). 2RU - it wasn't Gonzales. She's in the final two. I grab Claudia's arm and I'm tearing up. My mind flashes with my vision of what her crowing moment will be like. I imagine her smile, her excitement, her in the spotlight as the last one standing. Then, finally, they call out 1st runner-up.

Gabriela Gonzales. My heart sinks. NOT AGAIN!?!?!? NOOOOO! Two years in a row she's 1st runner up. Now don't get me wrong - placing at IJM is just .... indescribable. But for two years in a row, getting 1RU is very .... well, indescribable. I'm grateful she earned 1RU but at the same time I know she's disappointed to be so close but yet still so far. Honestly, being a 1RU is sometimes the worst place to be because you were RIGHT THERE. At the end, I see her keeping a smile on her face but tears appears in the eyes. She's keeping it together, like a true queen. I'm so proud. Sad for her, but still over the moon. It'll come, one day.

One day, "the crowning moment" will happen for each of my girls, though it may not be pageant related. It could be career related, academics, or just any accomplishment they have worked hard for. I tell them all the time - this pageant nor its results will not define who you are. It's what you do next that defines you.

What I hope my girls here learned this week is to never give up and to never run away from challenges. Things will never be easy, the greatest feats always come with challenges. It just makes the success that much sweeter. I'm so proud of each of my girls this week. We have grown together as a family and we all know, there is so much more left to our adventure.

As its 2am on Sunday, July 9 - I now say farewell to Nashville and IJM, and head off to Boca Raton for USA National Miss. We will be back, IJM. And next year, "I Just Might" have the next International Jr Miss queen(s) .... from The Crowning Moment.