TyAsia Grayer stepped up to the microphone, but the words just wouldnt flow.
Looking out at hundreds of people watching the Cherry Blossom pageant, she struggled to remember her speech.
Alone on the stage, she looked up, trying to gain her composure.
She had the largest fan base of any of the contestants vying for the crown, filling more than 80 seats Nov. 16 at the Grand Opera House.
But one very special person was missing.
She buried her father just hours before putting on her flowing pink gown.
I was daddys girl, she said a week after the competition.
Tony Anthony Grayer loved seeing his daughter all dressed up.
Her dad always liked her to be pretty, said her mother, Melanie Grayer, who had been married to her high school sweetheart for 26 years.
When TyAsia modeled the sleeveless, jeweled pageant gown for him months ago, he said: Oh my God, that is so beautiful.
About a year before, he failed his drivers physical. Congestive heart failure forced him to park his truck.
On disability, he longed to spend more time with his family.
I loved him taking me shopping, TyAsia said. He bought me anything I wanted.
She was the only daughter of the former Southwest basketball player who played for the late Don Richardson.
When TyAsia was in the third grade, she started following in her fathers sneakers. She is now a star for the Rutland High Lady Canes.
Her mother says she is a fierce competitor, something she inherited from dad.
After she was first runner-up in the Little Miss Cherry Blossom Pageant in 2001, she set her mind on competing for the queens crown. She made the decision to stay in the competition after her fathers death.
My daddy wouldnt want me to quit, she told her mom.
During a pageant rehearsal Nov. 9, her cellphone lit up. TyAsia stayed focused on the practice, and waited until it was over to check the messages.
Not wanting to believe the text that her father was dead, she phoned her brother, who confirmed the news.
I broke down and fell to the floor, she said.
Pageant coordinator Jan Thiese wondered whether shed see the 6-foot-tall beauty again.
Days later, an email came saying TyAsia would compete.
She told me thats what her dad would have wanted, Thiese said. Im telling you, that young lady is just amazing.
Her 47-year-old father died of a heart attack while working at his mothers home in Lizella, Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said.
It was unexpected, Jones said. He went to the doctor that Friday.
At the pageant, parents of the contestants were asked to stand for recognition before the girls appeared in their pink evening gowns.
Grayer family friend Monica Miller felt the tears flow.
What made me really cry was when her oldest brother stood up with the parents, Miller said.
The tragedy posed quite a dilemma for Thiese, who was coordinating her first pageant.
She struggled whether to inform the judges of TyAsias secret sorrow. Mentioning it to the audience could unleash her grief and undermine her confidence, she thought.
When she stammered over her speech, only her family knew the whole story.
With company pouring into the house each night to pay their respects, there wasnt much time to practice. Her fathers funeral was only six hours before the pageant.
If her dad had been there, she would have nailed it, her mother said.
Ever the perfectionist, TyAsia started over three times, hoping the next time would be flawless.
She looked heavenward and paused, thinking back to her fathers words. He had coached her as she was first working on the speech.
He told me, Calm down. Relax. Its your stage, she recalled.
A crescendo of applause spread through the audience and she finished explaining why she wanted to be the Cherry Blossom queen.
I think she is just the bravest young lady that Ive ever known, Thiese said.
After TyAsia faltered, Thiese quickly scribbled hand-written notes to the judges, but they were making their final tallies.
TyAsia did not make the court.
Cheers did roar through the auditorium when she came forward to receive her prize for selling the most tickets, and when she was named Miss Congeniality.
Things might have been different if the judges had known the enormous grief she was carrying, and they could fully evaluate her poise under pressure.
Although disappointed in her performance, TyAsia did not want the judges to know.
I wasnt looking for a handout, she said. I wanted to compete with everyone else.
Melanie Grayer is proud of her daughter, who more than anything wanted to win one of the pageants first scholarships to study to become a dentist.
I admire her courage, Grayer said. Life has obstacles. You cant expect to be given a handout because of the obstacles put before you.
Three days after the pageant, the straight-A student tore up the basketball court, scoring a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds. She is now striving to earn an athletic scholarship to further her goals.
Although she didnt take home a tiara, she feels she gained something more important.
It makes me stronger, said TyAsia, who might not be through with pageant competitions. I really like being beautiful.
Thats Daddys girl.
To contact Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.