MELVIN — Kaiti Zbinden did her best to hide her nervousness when she took the stage in the dance building at the Ford County fairgrounds in Melvin for her first pageant since she was a young girl.
"I was extremely nervous," the 19-year-old Gibson City woman said. "I was shaking."
But the crowd — and panel of judges — at last week's 58th annual Ford County Fair Queen Pageant would not have known it.
There was Zbinden, beside six other contestants, smiling throughout the 90-minute pageant, walking elegantly in high heels and her evening gown, and calmly answering questions posed by emcee Nicole McNary.
After the pageant was over, Zbinden kept smiling — with a few tears sprinkled in, too. A month of hard work and preparation had finally paid off for the woman who was named 2018 Miss Ford County Fair Queen.
"My cheeks hurt so much right now," Zbinden said afterward with a laugh. "They will be sore tomorrow, I guarantee."
It was the first pageant in which Zbinden competed since she took part in the fair's Little Mister & Miss Pageant when she was "super tiny," she said.
Zbinden entered her name in the pageant after being encouraged to do so for the past few years.
"This year, the timing was just right," she said.
And so was her onstage performance.
She answered questions calmly and confidently. When asked what the avid soccer player enjoys about playing the sport, Zbinden said it was the competitive nature. And during the "fish bowl" portion of the pageant — during which contestants each picked a question randomly — she was asked how she would better promote volunteerism in local communities, with Zbinden responding: "I think we can show our support for volunteers by hosting a dinner or giving them goodie bags that can have T-shirts or gift cards in them."
During the speech competition portion, Zbinden recounted her experience — an embarrassing experience — of chasing down cattle that had escaped from the University of Illinois dairy barn, where she works. Zbinden apparently left the gate open, and some 75 cows ran away.
"Let me tell you, dairy cows are crazy," Zbinden said. "They are the most stubborn, slowest-moving animals — unless a gate's open. ... That night, I learned two things: One, if you want to get exercise, go chase some cows. And two, always double-check to make sure the gate is shut."
Zbinden earned her high school diploma through homeschooling in 2017, at age 17. She is now finishing her associate degree at Parkland College, where she has a 4.0 GPA. She plans to transfer to Illinois State University this fall to major in animal industry management.
Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit fordcountyrecord.com.