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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Miss Utah Jill Stevens, right, reacts as she learns she is eliminated from the competition despite being voted the "America's Choice" contestant to advance to the round of 16 during the 2008 Miss America pageant in Las Vegas on Saturday night.

LAS VEGAS — The journey to Miss America ended for Miss Utah, Jill Stevens, Saturday evening when she was eliminated from the competition after landing among the final 16 as the "America's Choice" candidate, chosen by voters on the Web.

But the journey continues for Miss Michigan, Kirsten Haglund, 19 and this year's youngest contestant, who walked away with the crown after beating out 51 other contestants at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

Miss America 2007, Lauren Nelson, crowned Haglund to the cheers of the 7,000 in attendance.

Haglund hails from Farmington Hills, Mich., and performed an operatic solo during the pageant. Having overcome an eating disorder in high school, she made raising awareness of eating disorders her platform issue.

Besides the crown and title, Haglund also receives a $50,000 scholarship.

Though Stevens had one of the largest cheering sections Saturday — one full of soldiers from the Utah National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves — and the most publicity of any candidate leading up to the competition, it wasn't enough to win over the hearts of the Miss America judges.

Stevens, 24, from Kaysville, was chosen as America's Choice candidate after votes from the Web went in her favor.

Shortly after Stevens was eliminated, her mother, Karen Stephens, told the Deseret Morning News that her daughter would "rather be America's Choice than any other candidate."

The America's Choice designation meant that Stevens, a nursing graduate from Southern Utah University, cleared a critical hurdle early in the competition when 37 contestants, including her, were eliminated by judges.

Those online votes placed Stevens back in the running and on equal footing with the judge-selected contestants.

Haglund said Stevens deserved the America's Choice designation.

She called Stevens a "morale booster" and said the two had bonded. "We love her," she said.

The Learning Channel, which is hosting the pageant for the next three years, aired a reality show over the past four weeks, "Miss America: Reality Check," which showcased the 52 contestants in a variety of team challenges while they lived together in a Los Angeles mansion during a week in November.

From the airing of the first episode in early January, Miss America fans voted for their favorite.

Stevens' supporters organized a campaign to support her online, and it paid off, allowing her to compete in the fitness/swimsuit part of the competition.

Stevens, a 12-time marathoner, was the only of the top 16 contestants to wear a one-piece swimsuit in the televised pageant.

Following the swimsuit competition, six contestants were eliminated, including Stevens.

Always a ham, Stevens then led most of the other just-eliminated contestants in a set of push-ups before exiting the stage.

Her elimination meant that she didn't compete in evening wear, talent or on-stage question. Contestants were eliminated following each portion of the evening.

For being a finalist in the top 16, Stevens receives a $4,000 scholarship.

Among Stevens' supporters in Las Vegas were two soldiers from the Wisconsin National Guard.

Sgt. Kristen Moldenhauer was in combat medic training with Stevens and said she was pleased when the other contestants did push-ups with Stevens.

"I think that shows a great amount of respect for her," Moldenhauer said.

Moldenhauer and fellow Sgt. Amanda Pagac believe that the one-piece swimsuit may have weighed negatively in the judges' eyes.

But Pagac said she appreciated that Stevens stuck to her values.

Moldenhauer said the Miss America organization should find another measure of fitness besides the swimsuit.

"(Jill) always ran with the best of the men," Pagac said.

In the past year more than 13,000 women competed in local pageants, and about 1,300 competed in state pageants. That led to the 52 contestants — one from each state, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands — who hit the stage Saturday night.

Stevens, who was deployed as a medic with the Utah National Guard to Afghanistan for a year, decided to compete in the Miss Southern Utah University pageant in 2006, won and also landed the first runner-up spot at the Miss Utah pageant that year.

In 2007, Stevens won the Miss Davis County and, subsequently, Miss Utah pageants.

Now, she returns to Utah to finish her reign as Miss Utah until the state's pageant in June.

She will continue to push her platform, "Readiness When Disaster Strikes."

Then, as she says, she will have her life back — and planned to immediately begin celebrating that fact at a party after the pageant.

E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com