'I feel confident on the stage,' the young trailblazer said, 'and I want to spread awareness around the world.'
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 23, 2021. It has since been updated.
A 26-year-old Minnesota woman is hoping to make waves in the fashion world by becoming the first woman with Down syndrome to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Mikayla Holmgren has made it her mission to "dream big without limits" by taking steps to challenge social norms. She made history in 2017 when she became the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in a Miss USA state pageant and walked away with the Spirit of Miss USA award and the Director's award. Hoping to set a new norm in the fashion industry, the young trailblazer sent in an audition tape to Sports Illustrated in a bid to be featured in the magazine's next swim edition.
Holmgren, who graduated from Bethel University B.U.I.L.D. Program and received a two-year certificate program for individuals with intellectual disabilities, strives to be an inspiration for others with Down syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every 700 people in the U.S. are born with Down syndrome. Every year, about 6000 babies are born with the chromosomal condition in the U.S. "We tell all our people who have special needs or Down syndrome, go ahead and do it," Holmgren said while speaking to Gretchen Carlson in Friday's episode of the podcast PEOPLE Every Day. "Just follow your dreams and then do things."
In the audition tape she sent to Sports Illustrated on February 16, Holmgren says: "Hi, SI. I am Mikayla Holmgren. I am from Minnesota. SI Swim has been such a champion of the diversity of beauty. Now is the time to include someone like me. I am a dancer, a model, a public speaker, and a college graduate. I am the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in the Miss USA state pageant. I rocked my bathing suit on the stage. Now, it's time to rock the magazine."
"All women deserve to be celebrated," Holmgren continues. "We need awareness for those with special needs. Thank you, SI Swim." Speaking to The Gazette, she explained that including her in the magazine's next swim edition would help her inspire others to be stronger and more confident while also creating a more inclusive world. This was also why she chose to compete in the Miss USA state pageant in 2017 and plans to enter more pageants. "I feel confident on the stage," Holmgren said, "and I want to spread awareness around the world."
"I was competing in this pageant because I gained more confidence, and to show others I can do this and learn new skills," she added. Recalling the moment she won the Spirit of Miss USA award, Holmgren explained that it held a special significance for her. "The spirit award was so touching because my good friend wrote this letter about me, and I was in tears that I got this award," she said. "Then I got my Director's Award. I worked so hard on my achievements and my goals and my path."
She stressed that her ultimate goal behind these pursuits is to inspire others. "Go after your dreams and your goals," Holmgren said. "Set your mind to it and just learn something new." The young woman has reportedly been featured in campaigns by Sephora, Rosedale Mall, and Sigma Beauty. "I love to model because I am a role model to so many people...," she said. "I (also) love to model because modeling is a passion of art." Although she is still waiting to hear back from Sports Illustrated, Holmgren said that she isn't nervous about the answer. "I just wait and see," she said, "and fingers crossed."
Holmgren's mother, Sandi Holmgren, is extremely proud of what her daughter has accomplished so far. "She's a go-getter," she said. Sandi explained that while some parents may put limits on what their kids can do, children will want to pursue their dreams anyway. In Holmgren's case, Sandi had to allow her daughter to seek out those stretch goals. "Then they achieve more than you can ever imagine," Sandi said. "She's one that doesn't sit still long enough."