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Crowning achievement comes later in life for West Fargo woman

Lately, Jo-Anna Yvorchuk has dabbled in activities she would have vetoed a year ago, a strait-laced wife and professional in the grip of a mid-life crisis.

61 for 61

Lately, Jo-Anna Yvorchuk has dabbled in activities she would have vetoed a year ago, a strait-laced wife and professional in the grip of a mid-life crisis.

Just last month, she covered 180 miles on the back of a motorcycle. Earlier, she hit the runway at a couple of fashion shows. And in August, she flew out to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to compete in the Beauties of America pageant.

"I broke out of the mold of the quiet, serious physical therapist," says Yvorchuk, who faced her 50th birthday in January 2005 with much trepidation.

Sometimes, a serious "Big 5-0" slump calls for decisive measures. After all, this oft-dreaded milestone still brings many accomplished ladies down, not through extra wrinkles or cellulite, but through the sense that adventure and risk-taking are now officially frivolities of the past. So Yvorchuk took a plunge and signed up for her first pageant. Call it beauty queen therapy.

Life after 50?

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On a Thursday morning last month, Yvorchuk took phone pledges for the Roger Maris Cancer Center's 61 for 61 fundraising campaign. In between callers, she regaled the other volunteers at the Fargo Holiday Inn lobby with self-deprecating jokes about her crack at pageantry.

If the weather didn't warm up by the weekend's 180-mile 61 for 61 motorcycle run, she'd be reduced to a "queensicle" on the back of a bike, she quipped.

She picked up the elaborate crown sitting by her phone and demonstrated the one-size-fits-all clasp. She mused: "I'm always impressed by the weight of it. So as this day goes on" - she mockingly nodded off as if weighed down by the crown - "it might look like I'm sleeping."

That was the extroverted Yvorchuk - the bubbly socialite who inevitably perked up her senior patients at Fargo's Bethany Homes and Villa Maria. That Yvorchuk mysteriously disappeared after the Montreal native's 50th birthday.

Yvorchuk and her husband, Bill, had celebrated the January birthday with a romantic getaway to the Caribbean. But on returning to wintry Fargo, she hit a dreary patch. Almost overnight, she turned into something of a recluse, holing up home with a book after work.

"I didn't feel attractive or important anymore," she recalls. "I felt that when I entered a room, the wallpaper got more attention than I did."

Soon she felt trapped in the safety of her new routine, in which she had whittled down her identity to wife and physical therapist. "That is it," she thought. "There'll be no more excitement." Then she found out about the Beauties of America pageant at a booth during last year's Women's Showcase. Yvorchuk called Natalie Sparrow, the North Dakota director for the pageant, and learned about the 23-year-old event that pits contestants in five age groups. Organizers promise to notice both good looks and accomplishments, and there would be no swimsuit.

With no other serious contenders for the state title in the 50s category, Yvorchuk's bid would be a safe bet. But to her, it felt like a huge risk. And so she did it.

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Brave contestant

Soon after she accepted the state title, Bill, a Fargo plastic surgeon, started spotting striking changes in his wife.

This homebody surely got out of the house. Armed with her state crown as passport, she sought opportunities to do good and mingle. She modeled in charity fashion shows and stumped for the Breast Cancer Foundation. She and fellow delegates joined area small-town parades, where Sparrow overheard bystanders marveling, "Wow, there are women wearing sashes who are actually not teenagers."

In the buildup to the national pageant, she logged in 98 hours of title-holder appearances.

"It was a big turnaround," Bill says. "She had more light in her eyes."

On some days, self-doubt still gnawed at her. Though most people cheered her for bravely wading in the spotlight, others questioned her decision. One acquaintance asked, "Do you really want to be known as the geriatric queen of America?"

One day Yvorchuk, who readily admits to enlisting her husband's services in the past, asked him for his professional opinion of her looks. No, he told her, he didn't think she needed any surgery.

Whenever she felt insecure, she thought of Oprah's mantra that 50 is the new 30 and of glamorous 50-plus ladies, the Christie Brinkleys of the world who don't shy away from the limelight. Over-50 women like her had certainly come a long way.

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Still, the August competition had its tense moments. Soon after arriving in Myrtle Beach, Yvorchuk realized she was up against women (and their pageant coaches) who had competed since age 12. Before stepping on the stage for the evening-gown standoff, Yvorchuk asked Sparrow for reassurance, modeling her shimmering blue number backstage.

But onstage, any trace of insecurity vanished. During the five-minute interview portion, she calmly handled a barrage of trick questions. And during the fitness wear and gown bits, she strode down the stage with gusto.

"Her confidence was really showing onstage," Sparrow says. "Her confidence outshone everyone."

When she found out she had beat out her eight 50-something rivals for the crown, Yvorchuk laughed, giddy with surprise.

Since their return, Bill has noticed even more changes: outfits with more flair and a new rush of energy.

"The pageant helped me realize that just because I'm 50, I'm not ready to lie down and die," she says.

That morning at the Holiday Inn, a 5-year-old cancer center patient stopped by for a live interview with the radio disc jockeys broadcasting from the hotel. After the interview, she came in to meet Yvorchuk and try out her crown. The 5-year-old told the 51-year-old how nerve-wracking and fun her stint on air had been. Then the girl sat on Yvorchuk's lap and smiled shyly for a photo, the crown teetering precariously on her closely cropped head.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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