Theresa Vail was far from the glamorous world of evening gowns, swimsuit competitions and walks down fashion runways when she visited some land outside Pratt, Kan., in late December.
Vail, Miss Kansas, was fresh off her competition for the Miss America crown. But this day was about getting back to her roots.
Dressed in full camouflage and with bow in hand, she was hunting for one of Kansas’ legendary bucks.
A photo op? Far from it. Vail, 23, has been an avid hunter since her father introduced her to the sport when she was 10. Now she was getting a chance to fulfill one of her greatest goals — to shoot a trophy buck and shatter another stereotype.
“I think a lot of people have preconceived notions of what a beauty pageant queen will act like,” said Vail.
“I like to hunt, and I’m not going to hide that. A woman can enjoy being out there bow hunting just as much as a man can.”
Vail proved that on her hunt, put together by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism; JB Outfitters; and Realtree Outdoors, which taped the outing for a future TV show.
The weather was absolutely miserable when the group went out. It was teeth-chattering cold, the wind was blowing out of the north, and a blizzard was lowering visibility. But Vail, a sergeant in the National Guard, looked at the conditions as just another training mission.
She and Realtree’s David Blanton hunted for three days in that weather. Finally in the last hour of the last day, Vail and Blanton watched as 20 does appeared, followed by three bucks. Vail waited until the biggest buck started to walk within range and pulled back on her bow.
“I was at full draw for 1 minute and 32 seconds,” Vail said. “It was unbearable. I thought I was going to lose it.”
But the 8-point buck finally got close and turned broadside. Vail let the arrow go and scored a direct hit. She had one of her biggest bucks ever. Its antlers were green-scored, a preliminary score, at about 140, a trophy in anybody’s book.
“I have only been bow-hunting for a year,” she said. “I had taken a couple of does, but I wanted a big Kansas buck. This was a thrill.”
After the photos of her posing with the buck went viral, Vail got some, shall we say, interesting feedback. Earlier, she had stirred some debate when she became the first Miss America contestant to reveal her tattoos in the swimsuit competition in the national pageant. Then there was this …
“I would have older hunters ask me, ‘You didn’t really shoot that deer, did you? Someone else shot it and you posed with it, didn’t you?’ ” Vail said. “I couldn’t believe that was still going on in this day and age.”
But Vail also received many positive comments, encouraging her even more to get into the outdoors industry once her reign as Miss Kansas is over. She was majoring in chemistry and Chinese at Kansas State before she became Miss Kansas. Now she doubts she will return to school, at least in the near term. Instead, she wants to get a job in the outdoors industry, possibly with her own television show on hunting.
For Vail, that would be a perfect fit. Hunting has always been a central part of her life. She isn’t exaggerating when she says that the pastime may have saved her life.
“When I was younger, I was the epitome of the ugly duckling, and I was bullied severely,” she said. “My dad was a dentist in the Army and we moved around quite a bit, so I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was a loner. I didn’t feel like I fit in.
“It got so bad that I was thinking about committing suicide at one point.”
But Vail found an outlet when she started hunting with her dad when he was stationed in Germany.
“We had nine kids in the family, so no one got a lot of individual attention,” she said. “But none of the other kids liked to hunt, so I got dad all to myself when we went hunting. It was a great bonding experience, and it took my mind off my problems.”
That bonding continued when the family moved to Kansas in 2002 and father and daughter became avid deer hunters. When Mark Vail was stationed first at Fort Riley and later at Fort Leavenworth, he and his daughter would hunt regularly. They started with a gun, hunting out of ground blinds on private land owned by friends. Theresa graduated to hunting with a bow just a year ago.
“It’s so much more challenging to get that deer to walk close enough for you to get a shot,” she said.
The last six months have been a blur. Vail has made countless appearances and talks. She speaks about bullying at schools almost every week. She also speaks about empowering women to break stereotypes and about her love of the outdoors.
It’s a hectic schedule, but Vail loves it. And after it’s done?
“There will be plenty to do,” she said. “For one thing, I’m going to do a lot more hunting.”