LAS VEGAS — "Right now, I'd rather be in Afghanistan."

So that's how it felt 24 hours before you hit the stage at the Miss America pageant.

Jill Stevens ought to know.

She's been to Afghanistan. And she's spent a grueling week of rehearsals and preliminary competition nights at the Planet Hollywood Casino and Resort in Las Vegas, the site of this year's Miss America pageant.

Stevens, who is representing Utah at the pageant, spoke with reporters Friday between rehearsals, lunch and more rehearsals.

Friday, Stevens said she would trade a combat zone a half a world away for the one she faces today.

"I am my own worst critic," she said. "I'm not doing so hot. I'm beating myself down."

A coughed note during her talent performance — "I'm Shy" from "Once Upon a Mattress" — and what she called a "slaughtered" on-stage question were discouraging.

But hope is alive, she said.

"Usually when I prepare for something, I give it my full heart. I give it everything," she said. "I usually deliver."

She said she still has a chance to deliver if she is chosen as America's Choice — a contestant chosen by voters who went to TLC's Web site.

The America's Choice candidate will be added to the top 15 contestants, and scores will be erased, Stevens said.

The top 16 candidates will continue to compete with eliminations at various times during the night.

Stevens said she knows she is neither a stereotypical soldier or a stereotypical beauty queen.

The 12-time marathoner said this point in the competition feels like the last two-tenths of a mile of a 26.2-mile marathon.

And she's looking forward to the end of the competition.

After the crowing of the winner today, Stevens plans to have a party to celebrate: either that she's Miss America or that it's all over and she can finish her reign as Miss Utah until June.

"I have completed my dream of showing girls that anyone can do this," she said.

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