FARGO - The day before Miss North Dakota 2018 Katie Olson flew off last week to compete at this year's Miss America pageant was filled with tying up loose ends - literally.
"I've been running a lot of last-minute errands, picking up things I might have forgotten, like ponytail holders," Olson said with a laugh.
The elementary education major at North Dakota State University is going into the pageant, which airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9, on ABC, with a little added pressure. Her state is the defending titleholder, with Cara Mund of Bismarck capturing the title last year, the first time a North Dakotan had done so. But she's also having to respond to questions regarding Mund's recent skewering of the Miss America Organization.
In an August 17 letter addressed to fellow state titleholders, Mund claimed the organization, including CEO Regina Hopper and Board Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson, has bullied and silenced her during her yearlong reign.
In her letter, Mund said the organization belittled her by continually calling her by the wrong name, banned her from posting on the organization's social media channels and made her play second fiddle to Carlson, who grew up in Anoka, Minn., was named Miss Minnesota in 1988 and was Miss America 1989.
"Right away, the new leadership delivered an important message: There will be only one Miss America at a time, and she isn't me," Mund wrote in the letter. "To reinforce this, they told me that I'm not important enough to do big interviews, and that the major press is 'obviously' reserved for Gretchen."
Prior to leaving for Atlantic City, where the competition is taking place, Olson, a Williston native, chose not to comment on Mund's letter.
"I'm not answering questions about that right now," Olson said politely. "I'm focusing on preparing for Miss America."
However, she's choosing to look at the positives that might come from the controversy.
"With the letter, I think we'll have an extremely bonded class (of state titleholders)," she says. "We're in a new era now and I think it will make us closer."
Olson said while it might be natural for the media and others to compare her to Mund, the two women are very different and there's no reason a fresh set of judges couldn't give North Dakota the crown again.
"It's a little daunting," Olson said. "Cara left big shoes to fill. But New York won three years in a row. If New York can do it, North Dakota can, too."
While the Miss North Dakota Scholarship Organization has come out in support of Mund and the letter she wrote, Executive Director Kathryn Jones said they've instructed Olson to "tune out all the noise" and just be herself - a woman who possesses the qualities of a Miss America.
"Katie is an authentic, kind, and genuine person," Jones said. "She is very engaging and makes you feel special when you talk to her and you matter to her. She is the kind of young person you would love your child to have as a role model and who you want to represent your state."
Jones said the situation with the national organization has taken the focus off all state titleholders, including Olson.
"They may have initially lost some of the excitement and publicity that should have been theirs, but their time in Atlantic City has begun and the focus is now on them as they start rehearsals and preparation for the competition," Jones said last week.
When it comes to the controversy, Olson appears to be taking a page from her platform, "The Motivation Mindset: Positivity at Every Turn." She said her goal is to shake the hand of every state titleholder and live in the moment.
"The night before the crowning at Miss North Dakota, I asked Cara, 'How do you stay so calm through it all?' She told me to just relax and enjoy the experience. That's what I'm going to try and remember," Olson said.
The 2019 Miss America Competition will air live on ABC at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9.