Years of practice, preparation and focused energies all come down to some very intense moments on stage for Miss Arkansas Maggie Benton this weekend at the 97th annual Miss America pageant.
The Valley View High School and University of Arkansas graduate has been in Atlantic City for the past two weeks competing for the title of Miss America.
The finals of the scholarship pageant will air on KAIT at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10.
"All of these girls have become my best friends!" Maggie said early Saturday morning. "Two weeks at Miss America makes for a great friendship! I would imagine that it would surprise people that the contestants could truly be friends. Going through an experience like this together is enough to create a friendship like any other! I will keep in touch with many of these women for the rest of my life."
Preliminaries held Wednesday through Friday evening will determine which contestants will get to compete in the final phase of the pageant to be aired on ABC.
The pageant will be judged by Tara Lipinski, Jess Cagle, Molly Sims, Jordin Sparks, Thomas Rhett, Maria Menounos and Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri. Chris Harrison and Sage Steele will host the pageant.
Twenty-two-year-old Benton has been surrounded by friends and family after every phase of competition. A large contingent of friends and well-wishers from Arkansas made the trek to Atlantic City. But, Benton only gets a limited amount of time with them. Her focus is on the pageant.
"Time has been spent rehearsing and competing," she said. "Walking out on stage is the craziest feeling. The first time we stepped on stage last week, I couldn't help but get a little teary-eyed. A dream come true!"
Benton's talent is a Broadway vocal performance of "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera.
"Maggie has been my student since she was nine," Fonda Lofton Mann said. "I loved her then and love her more now. She has grown from a ball of energy to this successful, gracious young woman filled with compassion for others."
A student of Mann, Benton has found her vocal coach cheering her on, first at Miss Arkansas and then in Atlantic City.
"Maggie has always been a remarkable student and person. Even at an early age, keeping her Dayplanner with her at all times has created this organized person who can do the work of ten people because of her time management skills," Mann said.
Benton's platform is "Giving is a Gift." She promoted her platform as a contestant in the Miss Arkansas Pageant and plans to pursue it as her platform should she be crowned Miss America.
Miss America 2017 Savvy Shields is familiar to Maggie Benton. Both competed in the Miss Arkansas Pageant in 2016.
"She has a warmth in her voice that comes from her soul," Mann said. "It has developed into such a beautiful instrument due to her maturity and her ever-growing self-confidence."
"Looking back on my experience in prelims, I am so thankful for the performances that I had," Benton said. "God gave me the strength to perform some of my best competition ever."