Judy Stetson wanted to do something.

She wanted to find a way to combat the memories 911 emergency calls, stress from the COVID-19 outbreak, one that even claimed the life of one of her adult students.

Stetson visualized her Star Wars lightsaber swishing away the fear and the anxiety. She chose to pursue the Miss Health and Fitness 2020 title.

The winner takes home the title and appears on the cover of the Muscle & Fitness Hers magazine. This year’s winner will be chosen by a public vote open until Oct. 8. Currently, Stetson is fifth in this round of voting (which ends Aug. 13 at 10 p.m.) with the Top 10 moving on to the next. People can vote for her at mshealthandfitness.com/2020/judy.

It became a tactical and personal mission for Stetson. The competition is making a donation to Homes for Wounded Warriors, a non-profit organization to provide assistance to disabled U.S. veterans by building or remodeling handicap accessible homes for one wounded warrior at a time.

“As millions brace for going back to school and facing uncertainty in the midst of a pandemic. We’re learning to go with the flow and ‘ride the wave’ as the nation experience a time when many people share a strong feeling or attitude about something, and at the same time, coping with confusion as unexpected waves of chaos batter us,” said Stetson. “September marks National Preparedness Month and moves to October’s Family Health Month. I have such empathy for the sacrifices families make to take care of their loved ones. I lost a student to COVID and I’m the widow and sister of two deceased veterans.”

Stetson noted that it’s important to continue to support Homes for Wounded Warriors in the middle of a pandemic crisis.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful not to feel so isolated and that you could be a part of something beautiful that will transform the day-to-day life of a loved one confined at home?” she said. “Wouldn’t it be good if disabled veterans had a medical hoist to safely lift them from bed to wheelchair several times a day? Wouldn’t it be amazing to remodel any bathroom with sturdy handicap accessible features so they can bathe safely and easily?”

During the shutdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19 Stetson went “old school” and used weights in the garage along with ankle weights, resistance bands, and practicing sword forms from watching YouTube videos.

“I would also go to the park and do my 30 minutes ‘walk and talk’ with God for fresh air and meditation,” said Stetson. “I now put in an hour at the gym and back in training six days a week as a bikini bodybuilder since it re-opened June 10. I use a face mask, gloves, and wipe down the equipment before and after use with sanitizer… the new normal.”

Stetson teaches at both Carl Albert State College in Oklahoma and at the Adult Education Center in Van Buren.

“In preparation for back to school, I’ve already attended three health and safety teacher training sessions this past week. I’m sad that the COVID crisis took the life of one of my former students,” Stetson said and added that her colleagues also had someone, a friend or a co-worker, who died during this pandemic. “That’s why it’s important to take this time to teach and reinforce habits to keep students and their loved ones healthy and happy.”

She’s hoping to be the first-ever teacher from small-town America to win the title. Her journey to lift weights and help wounded warriors began at home when she had to help her husband.

“Two babysitters already quit on me, so I hired nurses to handle the unruly rascal after his stroke,” she said. “EMT emergency responders came to our house eight times in one year. We lived in constant crisis mode. I took up weightlifting, so I’d be able to lift my disabled husband four times a day. Fate forced me to prepare and transform due to unexpected changes.”

It was a life-changing experience as she struggled to care for her husband. Stetson, who stands 5-foot-2, would often strain her back to lift her husband from the bed to the bathroom since she was unable to maneuver a wheelchair through either of the two bathrooms in the house.

She took home an issue of Muscle and Fitness Hers and looked at the photos and the stories of strong, beautiful women.

“The thought of them as sisters and day after day in the gym getting stronger helped me emerge from a cocoon of despair,” Stetson said. “I’d dry my tears, grit my teeth, ‘alright girl, soldier up.’ I had to get my husband fed, his meds, lifted from bed, go down to the bathroom, hosed him down in the shower, bathed, shaved, a fresh diaper, and dressed daily.”

As a teacher, Stetson fell into what she calls “the grey area of not poor enough to qualify for assistance. There was no money to remodel their home, increasing medical bills, and her pay going to pay for nursing care.

“We lived in what I consider now as medical poverty. I was on a treadmill of a hot mess,” said Stetson. “I’d play a beat in my mind of two lines from the song ‘I Will Survive’: ‘I grew strong. I learned how to get along.’ We carry on, grown strong in the face of a pandemic crisis. I can deadlift 100 pounds now.

“As I got stronger, I felt more like Wonder Woman… I even when I hit myself upside the head with nunchucks. I show-and-tell my students to make fitness a fun adventure full of twists and turns. I’m such a newbie to social media, but even a teacher must ride the wave, learn new ways to communicate. I hope people see my story, open themselves to source energy, and believe the potential we all have.”

Editor's Note: A sentence was reworked to clarify Stetson had just one former student with COVID complications. -- gcm