Upstate beauty competes on stage, field
Story originally published in the Hometown News,
reprinted with permission
By Leon Russ
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010
"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," so wrote William Shakespeare in "King Henry The Fourth" lo so many years ago.
Had Shakespeare ever met USC Upstate senior Leigh Ward those famous words might never have been written.
You see Ward actually wears two crowns and never wavers under the burden of either.
As a senior midfielder/forward for the USC Upstate Women's soccer team she easily wears the mantle of team leader.
The other crown she wears is far more visible when she competes, as it is an actual crown.
Ward holds the title of Miss Travelers Rest and recently competed in the Miss South Carolina pageant where she narrowly missed a top 10 finish.
When you she Ward dressed in her soccer uniform it's a bit difficult to merge the two images in your mind.
She is statuesque standing 5 foot 9 with eye catching blonde hair and green eyes. However it's when she smiles that you can easily see her gracing a runway and lighting up the room with her smile. In fact her smile looks as if it could light up the soccer field.
Beauty pageants and athletics run in the family. Her mother Julie graduated from Spartanburg High School then attended USC Spartanburg (now Upstate) and participated in beauty pageants.
Ward noted hearing of her mother's pageant exploits sparked her interest in them. When she learned of the scholarship money that is available to help with college, it sealed the deal.
Her athletic bent probably comes from her father Gary who played football, basketball and baseball. Her two brothers also played soccer and a sister rides horses.
While she has been playing soccer since she was four years old she only began competing in pageants this past year.
Ward credits her life-long soccer playing with preparing her for the pageant scene. "I think (playing soccer) gives me an upper hand because I've dealt with losing and winning and I know how to handle both. I know it's hard for some of the girls in the competition because they've never experienced that."
Her platform as Miss Travelers Rest was educating kids on having a healthier lifestyle through nutrition, exercise, and education.
Ward has been singing in front of crowds for about as long as she's been playing soccer so for the talent portion she sang. "I grew up singing in church and had the leads in high school musicals," she said. "I really love to be onstage and sing, it really allows me to showcase my talents."
She has at least one more beauty pageant competition left in her she said. She plans to compete for the Miss Spartanburg pageant in November.
While many don't equate pageants as competition, don't tell that to Ward. She states both require "a lot of hard work, time and perseverance."
Her perseverance paid off quickly in pageants, it only took two competitions before she won the crown as Miss Travelers Rest with her third.
Ward has also persevered at Upstate and it's beginning to pay off. Her freshman year she played in nine games, getting two starts, and the team won 3 games.
As a sophomore she played in all 19 games, starting 11, and was named a member of the A-Sun All-Academic Team with the team winning 3 games.
Last year, as a junior, she again played in all 19 games, made eight starts, and was named a member of the A-Sun All-Academic Team again but the team was winless.
This year with Ward as a team leader the Spartans have already won 3 games with 7 remaining.
"Losing all those games was tough," she says, "It was very tough. There are times when you want to give up and throw the towel in but you know that pushing through that is going to make you better and make your team better."
Her time playing for Upstate is fast coming to a close and she wistfully said, "I have a lot of great memories on this field. The one that stands out the most is when we beat Lipscomb my sophomore year."
Ward explained she had "shattered" her finger in the previous year's loss to Lipscomb. She said of the win the following year, "It was a tough game, we battled it out and it was an amazing moment."
Ward's true colors show, and it's easy to see why Head Coach Renee Lopez is already lamenting losing her after this season, when she is asked about her favorite individual moment.
She pauses for a long time, thinking hard, then says, "I don't think I have one. I just love being out there doing everything I can to help my team."
Lopez said, "Leigh has been a great leader both on and off the field for this program. She moved positions and has done it without an ounce of complaining. She really goes the distance for her teammates. I wish I could keep her for four more years."
Ward realizes she's part of the building blocks that will establish Lady Spartans soccer. When she and her fellow freshman arrived it was USC Upstate's first year competing in Division I. After she and her fellow seniors graduate this year, the team will be eligible for conference play. "We're just glad we could be a part of changing" the atmosphere here. She's become close to many of the freshmen on the team and said she's looking forward to the day the team begins to win in double digits.
She is asked what's the biggest difference between being on the soccer field and being on stage at a pageant?
She explained the biggest difference is the focus of each. On the soccer field "you don't really see the crowd. You know they're there but they aren't the focus. On stage they're right in front of you. Every eye is on you and there's nothing else you can focus on."
Ward is majoring in corporate fitness and is looking to get a Master's Degree. Her future plans are a bit undecided. "I'd like to coach at the club or collegiate level," she said.
Wherever the future leads her, soccer will be involved. She explains when it comes to soccer, "Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. There's just a passion I have for it. I don't think I could ever walk away from it. I think I'll always be involved with it."