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April 20, 2014

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Miss Nevada Christina Keegan’s Miss America path hasn’t been all pageantry

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

The 2010 Miss America Pageant contestants make an appearance at Fashion Show on Jan. 23, 2010. Miss Nevada Christina Keegan is at center.

2010 Miss Nevada Christina Keegan

2010 Miss Nevada Christina Keegan talks about the 2010 Miss America Pageant and her platform.

2010 Miss Nevada Christina Keegan

Contestants of the 2010 Miss America Pageant compete in the first evening of preliminary competition at Planet Hollywood on Jan. 26, 2010. Launch slideshow »

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See all of the Sun's 2010 Miss America pageant coverage.

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LVCVA president Rossi Ralenkotter and Planet Hollywood Worldwide president Bill Feather flank Miss Nevada 2010 Christina Keegan.

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The 2010 Miss America Pageant's International House of Pancakes breakfast benefit for Children's Miracle Network at Planet Hollywood on Jan. 22, 2010. Miss Nevada Christina Keegan is second from left.

Miss Nevada talks in her sleep. This has been going on for years, she says.

Sometimes, it's just nonsensical yammering.

But sometimes, she is telling the story of when she was raped. She's told this story a lot, maybe a thousand times. She can tell it in 30 seconds. She can tell it over the course of an hour.

She tells it to audiences numbering in the hundreds, or just one. Or, when she's dozing, none.

As she says, "Even when I'm asleep, mumbling, I'm sure it's like, 'Years ago I was in Spain ...'"

Years ago, Christina Keegan, one of 53 contestants vying for the Miss America crown Saturday night at Planet Hollywood Theatre for the Performing Arts, was in Spain. Salamanca, to be precise, about 125 miles west of Madrid. "A beautiful area. I loved it," says the starkly red-headed Miss America hopeful, clad in blue jeans and an ironic "Rosemont College Football — Undefeated" (Rosemont doesn't have a team) T-shirt.

Keegan was visiting Spain that summer, wrapping up a four-week stay in the country alongside several other like-minded college students eager to study abroad. She had just finished her first year of undergraduate work at Rosemont, which sits just a few miles west of Philadelphia. She was majoring in molecular biology, minoring in psychology.

Those in her scholastic entourage relished traveling, meeting people from around the world, learning a new language. On the final night of the monthlong stay, a few members of the group hit a nightclub in Salamanca. Keegan was just 19, but she could drink legally in Spain.

And why not?

Keegan is not much of a drinker today and certainly wasn't at age 19. Maybe it was a rare mixed drink, or a glass of wine, that was spiked by a person she mistakenly felt was a friend.

"I had gone out with some friends and peers, and a peer felt it necessary to slip a date-rape drug into my drink and sexually assault me," she says, crisply reciting a story familiar to her but jarring to the listener.

Keegan didn't exactly "wake up" the following morning. "Came to," is more apropos. She recalls first noticing she was in a bed and it was not hers. She had no complete recollection of the previous evening, only that she had gone out with friends, heading toward a nightclub.

"It was terrifying," she says. She remembers that she felt "slow, everything was very slow. My consciousness was slow. I was there, but I was not thinking right. I wasn't sharp. This lasted about a day."

Friends took her to the hospital, where she was examined and told she had been sexually assaulted while rendered unconscious after ingesting Gamma-hydroxybutyrate, known as GHB, a liquefied medication that secretly had been dropped into her drink. GHB is used in the treatment of insomniacs, which is its intended application. But it is also known as a commonly used date-rape drug. Within 15 minutes, the affected person loses consciousness and remains in that condition for three to four hours.

Keegan was told she was given such a high dose of GHG that it could have killed her.

"This was somebody I had gone to school with, who I trusted, someone I had spent the last four weeks getting to know," she says. Yet the person who committed the act went free. Keegan, pained, confused and emotionally scarred, did not want to make it known she had been harmed in such a way. She didn't want those close to her, especially her family, to see her as "dirty."

"Like most victims, I blamed it on myself," she says. "I must have said something, worn something, done something to make him think it was OK. Maybe he even thought that I wanted it. I placed that blame on myself and thought, maybe if I don't talk about it, if I just deny that it ever happened, it will be as if it never happened. So, I felt that way for six months."

One of her five brothers, Peter, who is two years older and the closest in age to Christina, detected a change in his little sister during her Christmas holiday visit to Gardnerville. "I don't even recognize you," is how he put it. She finally told him her secret, and later told her father, Jim, and mother, Tina, what had happened. Jim, a Korea War veteran, took it particularly hard (Jim is an uncommon 80-year-old man with a 24-year-old daughter).

"With me being the last of six children and the baby girl, it was like he had failed to protect me, in one way," Keegan says, shaking her head at the memory. "Mom (who is 19 years younger than father Jim) was trying to be the strong one, but my father was just dejected, saying, 'I can't believe this has happened to my baby girl.' But since, they've accompanied me to speaking engagements, they've heard me speak out and they are just so proud that I've made myself more than that, that I didn't make this person, this attacker, take that from me."

That is the Keegan of today, who as Miss Nevada has adopted a powerful and personal platform issue for her dream run at the Miss America title: Strength Over Substance: Rape Education and Recovery.

This could well be the first Miss America Pageant where rape is not only part of the program, but has been addressed from the stage — Keegan's 30-second interview segment in Tuesday's preliminary round dealt with the subject.

Having pursued the Miss America title for six years, up to and including her victory in the Miss Nevada pageant six months ago, Keegan has embraced other, more, shall we say, pageant-friendly platforms.

"Cancer Awareness was one. Because my father has melanoma, that was important to me. I have a cousin with lymphoma," she says. "Everyone is touched by cancer, but everyone is touched by rape, too. It's just that nobody talks about rape. It's not something convenient, that we can put a pink ribbon on for once a year, like with breast-cancer awareness. No one does that for sexual education. ... This has to do with sex and violence, and nobody wants to talk about sex and violence. It's something we keep at arm's length."

Before being assaulted herself, Keegan says she felt "invincible" and had scant knowledge about, or training for, being attacked.

"I thought, 'This will not happen to me,' " she recalls. "Being a 19-year-old girl, I thought, I can outwit my attacker. I'll outrun him. Well, I was unconscious at the time I was raped."

Since receiving help upon returning to Rosemont, where she sought and received group and individual counseling in the Philadelphia area, Keegan has taken her story to anyone who has been victimized, or is even remotely concerned about being assaulted.

"Fifty percent of victims of sexual assault are under the age of 18, and many of those are children," she says, always armed with statistics to bolster her powerful personal story. "I don't know why, as a society, we refuse to talk about this, when it affects such a large population of our youth."

Keegan has spoken to schoolchildren. She has appeared in front of active military personnel. No one is disqualified form hearing the message.

"I've had e-mails letters," she says. "I've had people come up to me and tell me their stories, and say to me, 'I've been a victim of sexual assault, and I've held that story in my heart for 20 years now and never told anybody."

Keegan says she is passionate about the Miss America Pageant and Miss America Organization because it affords her and her fellow contestants a chance to not only compete for scholarship money (and, of course, the accompanying fame) but to bring important issues to light.

"A lot of people question the relevancy of Miss America anymore. What's its place?" she says. "You have these girls waving and kind of parading around the stage in swimsuits — well, what's the point?"

She jumps in to answer her own hypothetical question.

"Tell me another organization that gives young women, from 18 to 24, the ability to fund their education and give them a platform to speak out on a local, state and national level about issues that matter to them," she says, not waiting for an answer. "There are none."

Keegan already has won enough scholarship money during her pageant career to pay for her undergraduate work and her first year of medical school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She has two fields of interest: pediatrics, or sports medicine. A Pittsburgh Penguins fan, Keegan says her dream job would be to be a physician for an NHL team, meaning that a pro hockey player suffering from a sprained ACL might conceivably be treated by, yes, a one-time Miss America.

"My mom says the Penguins are my boyfriends," she says, laughing. "Rosemont is right next to Philadelphia, but I couldn't be a Flyers fan. I don't like how they play. They're a little too aggressive, too physical, for me, and not enough skill and speed, and that's why I got into watching the sport. Naturally, I went to their cross-state rivals and love the Pittsburgh Penguins."

As for the chances of winning Saturday's pageant, to be telecast tape-delayed at 8 p.m. (the live show is at 5 p.m.), Keegan is a long shot, no better than 53-to-1 (Puerto Rico is back onstage, joining District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Island as non-state entries). They're probably longer than that, even, considering Miss Nevada never has won the pageant and has not finished any higher than Stacie James' second-runner-up showing in the 1987 pageant.

But Keegan is a strong candidate for the Quality of Life Award, which is judged independently of the pageant and focuses solely on how effectively a contestant promotes her platform. That winner, who receives $6,000 in scholarship money, is announced Thursday.

"It would be so gratifying to be recognized as that. It would be such an honor," says Keegan, who reiterates that she is in the Miss America Pageant to win the entirety of the enchilada. "I've never wanted to be in any other pageant, (such as) Miss USA, at all. This is the one. After this, I won't compete in another pageant, ever. I'm very confident. ... I think there are some girls here who are perfectly fine being their state titleholder, and that's all they want.

"I'm very happy being Miss Nevada, but I'm ready for a promotion."

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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