by MIKE CHAIKEN
For Samantha Sarelli, competing at Miss Teen USA last month already was staged as a once in a lifetime experience.
But the competition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, turned out to be a historic moment for everyone involved.
Sarelli finished 15th in the Nov. 7 competition, which was held at Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.
Although the current Miss Connecticut Teen USA didn’t win the event, Ki’ilani Arruda of Hawaii is the new title holder, the Trinity College student was proud of her performance all the same.
However, the typical excitement surrounding the Miss Teen USA competition was muted due to the pandemic. And as the days counted down to the actual finals last month, safety – rather than competition – ruled the day at the Miss Teen USA competition.
The preparations to fend off COVID-19 began weeks before Sarelli boarded a plane from Connecticut.
Although the pageant didn’t require it, the Westport teen quarantined herself for a month before she left for Tennessee. She shut herself away from friends or some members of her family to reduce the risk of becoming infected.
A week before Sarelli left for the competition, the organization sent all of the contestants, including Sarelli, a COVID-19 self-test. The kits were then sent off to a lab to make sure no one was testing positive.
Sarelli then took the additional step of testing herself yet again before she left. “Just to be safe.”
When she flew down to Tennessee, Sarelli took extra precautions. She wore two face masks, a face shield and gloves on the plane.
When Sarelli and the other contestants arrived, the Miss Universal organization (which operates the Miss Teen USA and Miss USA events) required yet another COVID-19 test. After the tests, the contestants than were placed in isolation for the night.
Sarelli said if a contestant tested positive, they would have to sit out the competition. They would have to wait till next year to try again.
Since she would age out of the teen category next year, Sarelli said she didn’t want to risk losing out on the opportunity for which she had been waiting her entire life.
Every contestant was tested every 72 hours. Over the course of five days, Sarelli said she had been tested four times.
Additionally, the staff was tested as well.
Whenever the contestants were congregated, they also were required to wear face masks, maintain proper social distancing and have a temperature check when they arrived.
“They were very, very strict,” said Sarelli. “They took safety to a while other level. ”
Fortunately, said Sarelli, there were no positive test results among the contestants.
The competitions already are stress-filled events as contestants prepared to appear before the judges and hopefully walk away with a national title.
The safety precautions to fend of COVID, said Sarelli, added “different level of stress.”
COVID also changed the tenor of the competition.
Contestants for events like Miss Teen USA often express their excitement about being able to socialize with their peers from across the country. They speak about the opportunity to make lifelong friends.
However, Sarelli said that didn’t happen this year as the women were separated into pods and were unable to meet with contestants outside their individual pods.
Sarelli made the best out of the situation. She became close to her roommate and she grew close to the other women in her pod. But there were many women she never got to meet.
All of the contestants interacted by social media prior to the event. But, Sarelli said she was unable to have a face-to-face meeting with many of those contestants due to the precautions taken to prevent the disease.
The Miss Teen USA contest was supposed to be held in the spring but was postponed until November as a precaution because of the pandemic.
This gave Sarelli, who has now held her title longer than any other teen in the history of the Connecticut organization, several more months to prepare for the event.
By the time November rolled around, Sarelli said she was more than ready to take the stage before judges. Interviews with judges already had been held virtually. She said she also had her stage walk down pat.
Sarelli said she was confident heading into the preliminary competition and the finals. She said her number one mission was to keep herself mentally prepared.
Sarelli’s predecessor in Connecticut, Kaliegh Garris won the previous Miss Teen USA pageant.
Sarelli finished in the top 15 this year, which gave her a chance to continue to compete at the final competition. However, she did not reach the top 5.
Sarelli was philosophical about her finish.
“It’s definitely an honor and something I’m proud of,” said Sarelli. She was happy the judges recognized the hard work she had put into preparation.
“I left everything on the stage,” said Sarelli. “I have no regrets.”
“It’s a good way to end the teen chapter,” said Sarelli, who now is too old to compete for the title.
“I’m a big optimist,” said Sarelli. “This wasn’t my destiny.”
For now, Sarelli isn’t thinking about whether she will try to compete for the Miss USA title or maybe an international title.
“It’s too early,” she said.
But, she said, “I will always love pageants.”
Sarelli said she plans to concentrate on her education at Hartford’s Trinity College. She also may consider some modeling opportunities since some have been dangled before her.
Sarelli said she also wants to continue her fight against human trafficking, which was an issue she promoted as Miss Connecticut Teen USA.
The Miss Connecticut Teen USA had been postponed due to COVID. The new dates are Feb. 27, 2021 for the preliminary competition and Feb. 28 for the finals and crowning. The event will be held at the Hartford Marriott in Farmington.
To the contestants who seek to succeed her, Sarelli offered some advice.
“Be true to yourself,” said Sarelli. “Never give up.
“Whatever happens that night is part of your destiny,” said the teen titleholder.