Shayla Silva the beauty queen never would have guessed she would one day be Shayla Silva the firefighter.

"If you would have told Miss Alaska International, me, that I'd be a firefighter, I would have laughed in your face," she quipped.

Silva, who not long ago was on the beauty pageant scene in her home state of Alaska, is less than a month away from becoming a firefighter with the Clifton Fire Protection District.

The milestone marks the culmination of a journey that began many years ago.

Growing up in Alaska, she always saw herself as something of a tomboy and was an avid hunter looking to fill the freezer before winter. But a beauty pageant contestant?

"Never a world I considered to be a part of," Silva, 30, said.

One of the messages she gave at pageants, which she felt made her stand out, looked to draw attention to the issue of victims of domestic violence. It's an issue she had to face as a teenager, but something that inevitably made her stronger.

Overcoming those difficult times helped shape her life. So did her time as a pageant contestant, which provided powerful lessons and some lifelong friendships.

"I met more than just beautiful faces (competing in pageants)," she explained. "I met some of the most intelligent, strong women I've ever met, some of whom were going off to medical school or headed to the military."

The world of beauty pageants wasn't something she thought much about as a youngster.

She played collegiate soccer for a while and finished her degree at the University of Alaska-Anchorage at 25. That's when she got involved in the beauty pageant life and went from wearing soccer cleats to wearing heels.

"I am not the most graceful person," she admitted. "I had to have one of my friends and my mom help me practice walking in high heels."

Ready to be a firefighter

Now that she's a little more than a month away from becoming a Clifton firefighter, she said she's never been more comfortable in her own skin than she is right now.

She originally moved to Grand Junction in 2017 to pursue a nursing career, a profession she felt she was drawn to based on her past. When she didn't get into the nursing school, she was faced with two options: move back to Alaska or adjust her plan.

She decided on the more risky option.

"Life is all about taking chances," she said. "It's OK to walk through a door you never expected to."

Her godfather actually suggested the career direction to her. He worked as a smokejumper firefighter with Silva's father in Alaska, and now lives in Mesa County, and suggested she look at joining the Clifton Fire Protection District.

The former beauty queen learned quickly that this was a completely new arena and that it required a new approach.

The first physical fitness test she took to join the department, she recalls showing up in full makeup and quickly realized that wasn't going to work.

That served as a wake-up call, and she committed to taking on the physical challenges.

To become a firefighter, she knew she had to put on muscle.

Insecurities about her appearance no longer played a role for Silva when she got ready in the morning. Being in peak physical condition was now her priority.

"No one cares how you look; it took a little while to get used to that," she said.

Silva can even show up at the department "a little stinky" after a workout without having to rush to shower.

"Two years ago, I never would have done that," she said.

a physical challenge

After that first fitness test, Silva started working on her physical transformation.

With the help of a personal trainer she developed a workout regimen to be better prepared for the physical requirements needed to be a firefighter.

Working out several times a week, Silva did exercises like flipping a heavy tire, smashing that tire with a sledgehammer, pushing and pulling sleds with gear on them and working on endurance with cardio workouts.

Silva wanted to make sure that her firefighting colleagues could rely on her to get the job done.

"When it comes to physical fitness, there will be situations with two firefighters in and two firefighters out," she said. "I want to make sure I'm keeping up with the person next to me.

"If something happens I want them to know I've got their back."

Silva is fully committed to becoming a firefighter.

"It takes time to be trusted in an arena like this, but I show up and ask questions and feel I've shown the senior firefighters I want to be there and work hard."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, out of more than a million firefighters nationwide in 2017, only 7% were women.

Somebody who knows firsthand what it takes to be a firefighter, her father, Mike Silva — a retired smokejumper — said the only piece of advice he gave her was to stay fit and strong.

"She's going to have to pack her own weight, and that's the way it should be," he said.

He wasn't even sure how his daughter gravitated to the Clifton Fire Department to begin with, but after her first physical she really persevered and developed strong techniques to succeed.

"Nothing ever surprises me with Shayla," he said.

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