UCLA alum steps into spotlight as Miss USA

UCLA alum steps into spotlight as Miss USA

Published Jan. 21, 2013 9:10 a.m. ET

The fifth time's apparently a charm. At least for recently crowned Miss USA Nana Meriwether it was.
A former All-American volleyball star at UCLA, Meriwether lettered all four years of high school in volleyball, basketball and track and field in Washington D.C., and unlike most, she didn’t make her way onto the beauty-queen scene until well after her highly-successful volleyball career came to an end.

Despite a late start, it was her background in athletics that helped lay the groundwork for her career in the pageant business.

“I missed competing and having a goal,” said Meriwether. “[When] competing for pageants there is a physical aspect that you have to get your body to a certain way and I miss having that through sports.”

Meriwether entered in the Miss California pageant for four straight years from 2008-2011, but could only come as close as second place in 2008. Perseverance was key for the 27-year-old, who in her final year of eligibility moved back to the East Coast to compete in the Miss Maryland pageant.

After finally winning the coveted state crown in 2012, Meriwether earned herself a spot in the Miss USA competition. From there, history was made.

Meriwether was named first runner-up to Miss Rhode Island, Olivia Culpo, who went on to win Miss Universe six months later. With the new vacancy, Meriwether took over as Miss USA.

“We were both part of history,” said Meriwether, who found out her fate while eating dinner at a restaurant with friends. “It was such a unique way to come into the title.”

But for the athlete-turned-beauty queen, Meriwether’s sights weren’t always set on the pageant scene.

“I would have never dreamed she would have matured enough to possess the confidence to put herself her out there like she does standing alone in a beauty pageant,” said her UCLA coach, the legendary Andy Banachowski. “She was willing to speak up among her teammates and lead them, but I never imagined she would have the drive to go it alone.”

Once a shy, awkward multi-sport athlete, not even Meriwether envisioned she would land where she is today.

“I was the tallest girl and nobody liked me,” said Meriwether of her high-school days. “I asked this guy to prom and he was the only other tall person in my class and he said no. And a couple weeks later he couldn’t find a date so he asked me and I said yes. I was not attractive.”

Meriwether, who was enrolled in medical school at USC and considering a modeling career following the end of her volleyball days, was convinced by a friend to try out for a Miss Malibu competition instead.

The experience was quite an adjustment for Meriwether, who had to ditch her sweats and switch from lifting weights to running, cardio or yoga to maintain a leaner physique.

Despite having no previous experience in the industry, Meriwether was crowned Miss Malibu in her first attempt. And although unsuccessful in four straight tries at Miss California, Meriwether maintained faith. 

“That was something I learned in athletics, [it was] perseverance and learning from the past," said Meriwether, who also played professionally in Puerto Rico and trained for the 2008 Olympics in Colorado Springs before retiring.

Despite those awkward days of being the lanky kid in school, it was sports that helped Meriwether grow comfortable in her own skin and prepare her for the rigors of a beauty pageant.

“Without volleyball I could not have competed at Miss USA. [The] Miss Universe pageant is watched by billions of people live, it’s quite an event. I couldn’t have done it without that experience with volleyball.”

As she summoned past lessons learned from volleyball, she also picked up new lessons along the way.

"It takes so much to stand on stage and be judged. It’s an amazing experience just to grow yourself. Even if you don’t win it’s just an amazing process to get to know yourself and put yourself out there.”

Leading up to the competition, Meriwether spent three weeks in a New York City hotel with 50 other contestants, one of them being 6-foot-3 Alaina Bergsma — Miss Oregon — who also played for the Oregon Ducks volleyball team.

“And you still have to wear these five-inch heels,” said Meriwether of the height advantage. “It takes confidence to be the tallest girl in the room. It’s something you have to get used to and [you just have to] love yourself.”

The 6-foot-1 Meriwether got her start in sports as a kid when her father Delano, a track-and-field champion who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1971, began taking her and her siblings to the track for workouts.

While at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., which has an alumni list of White House notables Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore Jr., the Obama daughters and the Roosevelt and Nixon children, Meriwether picked up volleyball after watching her sister play.

A 12-time letter winner, Meriwether was also named the 2002 Gatorade Player of the Year and Washington Post Player of the Year.

Despite her success, Meriwether was not heavily recruited, so she made her own VHS tape and sent it to coaches at schools like Stanford and UCLA.

Meriwether spent a semester at Duke, and after being named to the ACC All-Freshman team she needed a change, so she packed her bags and headed out West, where she joined the UCLA volleyball and track-and-field teams.

In Westwood, Meriwether refined her skills to became the first player in Division I history to simultaneously lead the nation in two statistical categories — hitting percentage and blocks per game. She was also named First Team All-Pac-10, a two-time All-American and helped the Bruins to a Final Four appearance in 2006. 

But despite the leadership role she eventually grew into, it took a while to get there.

“I was very shy my freshman and sophomore year,” said Meriwether. “No one really knew me because I never spoke.”

During her junior year, she finally grew tired of being "the quiet one." After being passed over during voting for team captain while at UCLA, she was advised by Banachowski to be more outgoing.

"Her raw talents (her jump, quickness, speed) were easy additions to our team, but over time she blossomed into an emotional leader as well as she gained confidence in her abilities," said Banachowski. "She is such a likable person, with a modest personality, that it was easy for be accepted by her teammates and eventually become a physical and emotional leader of the team.”

Now, as she settles into her new role, Meriwether looks to shed light on one of her other passions, The Meriwether Foundation, which supports AIDS/HIV orphanages, clinics and schools in five African countries.

The cause hits close to home for Meriwether, who was born in South Africa while her parents spent time doing pro bono medical and community work.

Trailblazers themselves, Meriwether's mother, Nomvimbi, overcame odds to become one of South Africa's first black female lawyers, while her father became the first African-American to be accepted to Duke University Medical School.

So it's only fitting that Meriwether would become the first African-American with South African roots to be crowned Miss USA.

“There is something to be said about never giving up," said Meriwether. "It's such a blessing and I’m so glad I persevered to continue on and win.”