A crowning achievement

When the pandemic hit, some people turned to baking bread, binge-watching Netflix or endlessly scrolling through TikTok. 

University of Northern Iowa doctoral student Glynis Worthington decided to enter a beauty pageant. 

It was just the latest in a lifetime of unconventional but successful choices for Worthington, a 59-year-old Cedar Falls resident with a strong aversion to boredom. She beat out competitors decades younger to win the Mrs. Iowa crown last month. 

“Twenty years from now, when my grandkids ask me what the pandemic did to my life, I’ll tell them it helped me win Mrs. Iowa,” Worthington said.

Before leaving the corporate world to raise her four children, Worthington was a Wharton School grad on the fast track to an executive position at AT&T. After her youngest child left for college, she turned to athletics, joining the Senior Olympics and setting a state record in 2012 with a standing long jump of 7 feet, two inches. 

Worthington came to UNI determined to study the impacts of community-based competitive sports leagues for adults over 50. Now a doctoral student, Worthington believes  senior citizens can raise the bar on what they think is possible for their age group.

She’s leapt over the bar herself. Her journey to becoming Mrs. Iowa began when her husband, a bit exasperated with her energetic waywardness in the midst of COVID isolation, had a suggestion.

“He was like, ‘why don’t you try for Mrs. Iowa?’” Worthington recalled. “And I was like, ‘well, fine then, I just might!’ And I marched to the computer and googled it, then inquired. That’s how it started.”

It may have started on a whim, but it ended with a crown. On Sept. 21, she was named Mrs. Iowa at a tri-state event in Pittsburg, Kansas. 

To win the crown, she beat out practiced contestants who were around the age of her oldest child, 28-year-old Buster. It was her first time competing in a beauty pageant since she was crowned Pancake Queen of Centerville, Iowa in 1980 while she was a student at Iowa State University.

With her age and relative inexperience, Worthington did not expect to win, which is why she responded with a reflexive squeal and a shimmy when her name was announced. “I was expressive and joyous. It was cool!” Worthington said. “I did this dumb wiggle thing I do when I get excited. I was thrilled.”

Her passion for proving the value of a rigorous exercise  is what led her to UNI. She sees community-based competitive sports programs as key to long-term health, which is why she decided to pursue her Doctor of Education with an emphasis in allied health, recreation and community services at UNI.

“Programs like these are usually federally funded through grants that require scientific evidence of their positive impacts, and the research is often not considered ‘real’ without a doctor of some kind involved in the study,” Worthington said. “So I decided to become that doctor.”

Worthington is finished with her coursework and is now working on completing her dissertation, where she is studying the adult recreational pickleball experience.

After graduation she hopes to establish an institute that pushes exercise and self-care at more active levels to raise the expectations of what adults over the age of 50 can physically achieve.

“The bar is so low right now that if a 65-year-old gets out of his chair the audience roars,” Worthington said. “The 100-yard dash should not be uncommon for two-thirds of the people who are 60. We have to raise that bar and create the scientific evidence to create these programs to help a portion of us exercise, and ultimately live happier and healthier lives.”

And although she is a non-traditional student, Worthington said her age hardly ever came up during class.

“The only time it ever came up was if I brought up,” Worthington said. “I was completely comfortable being a peer with other students, and people expected just as much rigor from me as they did with anyone else, which was awesome.”

Worthington was an active student, volunteering and participating in the Northern Iowa Student Government as the representative for the Graduate College, and she said no one batted an eye when a nearly 60-year-old woman walked up willing to get involved.

Worthington said her  favorite part of winning Mrs. Iowa was that her family was there, including her 88-year-old mother-in-law, who had been living in isolation in Landmark Commons in Waterloo due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“I thought, ‘she deserves an adventure.’ Because that’s in her soul and she had been trapped for months,” Worthington said. “And my oldest son and his wife drove up from Dallas, so it was just like a surprise birthday party.”

And her family might get to relive the experience when Worthington competes for Mrs. America early next year. In January, Worthington will fly to Las Vegas to compete for the national title on Jan. 22-29. 

And whether she wins or not, she certainly has a story, and a message, to share.