Beauty pageant winner still chasing Olympic running dream
By: By VIVI HOANG The (Nashville) Tennessean
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tiffany Love learned her feet could fly as a kid, and, oh, the places they’ve taken her since.
At age 7, her fleet feet first took her far away from the boys who refused to pass her the ball in a flag football game. Love’s father had taken her to a work-sponsored father-son event, and Love was the only child in the family who fit the event’s age limit to play flag football.
His boss gave the little girl the OK to join. The boys on the team weren’t so amenable.
“So she outran them,” says her mom, 54-year-old Mamie Jackson of Nashville. “That was the highlight of her life because she was able to intercept the ball and run and make the touchdown.”
“I left those boys about 50 yards back,” says Love, who’s 25. “They could not catch me.”
Love’s been running ever since.
It’s what paid her way through college. It’s why she, as Mrs. Tennessee International 2008, has embraced the issue of stamping out childhood obesity. And it’s what she continues to do every day — somehow fitting it around her full-time job as a Vanderbilt University Medical Center psychiatric social worker — in hopes of making the U.S. Olympic track and field team.
“She stays on course,” said her husband, 45-year-old Melvin Love. “She won’t deviate. If she says she’s going to do something, she will do it.”
Born in Hialeah, Fla., and raised in Atlanta, Love says she always knew she’d do something in the medical field. Her mother, a respiratory therapist and a medical clinical assistant, inspired Love to follow a similar career path. Love’s father, Willie Collier, is an Atlanta interior decorator.
Track and field proved Love’s ticket. Not too surprising a development, considering her mother was a hurdler and her father a baseball player and boxer. Her two older brothers, Ty and Antonio Collier, both in their 30s, also played sports.
Love earned a four-year athletic scholarship to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, where she majored in education. Then she got a master’s in clinical social work. During an internship for the degree, she met her husband, who was working at the same downtown clinic.
“The moment I saw her, I knew she was the one,” says Melvin, a phlebotomist and operations supervisor for a plasma company in Nashville.
It was around that time someone asked whether she’d ever considered competing in pageants.
“She had a passion for studying and running,” says her mother. “It wasn’t heard of for a young lady to do pageants and be in sports. You can’t be pretty and graceful and poised and have a brain and be an athlete.”
But Love found no quarrel between the worlds of sports, academics and pageants. And the lure of scholarship money proved irresistible. So she gave it a shot and went on to win the titles of Miss Kingsport 2004 and Miss Spirit of the South 2006.
She and Melvin got married in May. Not long after, she looked into pageants for wedded women, leading her to Mrs. Tennessee International.
On Oct. 21, she beat 11 other women for the crown. She’ll represent Tennessee at the Mrs. International national pageant July 18-19 in Chicago.
“We want to spread the message of our platform and how young women can make a difference in the world, not only at the state level, but internationally,” she says, explaining the pageant name.
How Love hopes to make a difference is by chipping away at the state’s obesity problem. She travels throughout Tennessee promoting free sports clinics, preaching healthy living and raising money for those who can’t afford the costs of fitness, such as athletic gear, recreational fees or extracurricular activities. She also crusades for physical education in schools.
A fit child is a focused child, she believes.
Love knows a thing or two about fitness. She runs the 400 meters in 54.27 seconds and the 800 meters in 2.12. Women who run the 400 meters in at least 51.45 or the 800 meters in at least 2:01.50 automatically qualify for the U.S. Olympic team trials. If more competitors are needed, the next cut-off times are 52.60 and 2:06.50, respectively.
She competes in six indoor meets and 10 to 12 outdoor meets a year. Most mornings at 5 you can find her running around the Vanderbilt campus or track. In the evenings, she lifts weights at the gym with her husband, an athlete as well.
Dr. Paul W. Ragan, director of the psychiatry consultation liaison team to which Love belongs, says that work-life balance she’s found makes her a better employee.
“The funding for public health and public mental health and substance abuse is extremely meager, and to try and place these people with resources, which is one of Tiffany’s jobs, is very, very sad,” he says. “We have some sad days. To have a good balance outside of work is important.”
When she’s not busy with her job, crown duties and Olympic aspirations, she’s working with underprivileged youth through the nonprofit she founded, Tenacious Teens 4 Christ. Her mother oversees the group, and Love and her husband, a minister, focus on developing the teens’ life skills.
Love helps them believe that if they focus on a point in the distance, they, too, can get themselves there one day.
“She has a passion for others,” Mamie Jackson says. “She loves to help others. Making them smile, helping them out. Teaching them what she’s learned.”
Published in The Messenger on 12.19.07