COLUMBIA CITY — “Everything is so surreal right now.”

Leah Bechtold was surprised and humbled after being named the 2019 Distinguished Young Woman of Whitley County at the program Saturday evening in Columbia City High School’s auditorium.

It was an experience that almost didn’t come to be.

When former DYW Madison More and Hannah Schaefer first encouraged Bechtold to participate in the Distinguished Young Woman program, she wasn’t interested.

“At first I didn’t want to do it. I thought it was more like a beauty pageant,” Bechtold said.

After further investigation, she found out she was all wrong.

“It isn’t about how pretty you are, it’s about you — more than how you look,” Bechtold said. “After some prodding, I decided to do it. I’m so glad I did.”

Throughout the process of being in the program, Bechtold became closer with the other three participants, her classmates.

“I already knew them, but now I know them on a different level,” Bechtold said. “They’re all amazing. We’re all going to go out and change the world.”

Bechtold is overwhelmed with the title and what comes with it — participating in parades and going to the state program. She expects to frequently be in touch with 2018 Distinguished Young Woman Alexia Aung, as well as her friend, More, the 2017 DYW.

Bechtold receives scholarship money, which she will use toward her new career goal of becoming a physical therapist. She recently made up her mind after going to physical therapy with her friend, Alissa Jagger.

Jagger was injured in a car accident that left her as a paraplegic. She has undergone intensive therapy, including trips to Chicago.

Bechtold originally wanted to be an elementary education teacher, but realized pediatric physical therapy would be a better fit after seeing the physical therapist interact with her friend.

“She taught patients on a very individualized level. You work with them, teach them and help change their world,” Bechtold said.

She has applied and been accepted to the University of Indianapolis, and also applied to Butler University. She hopes to attend college in Indianapolis.

She is the daughter of Chris and Melanie Bechtold, both Whitley County Consolidated Schools teachers, and has a younger brother, Sam, who attends Indian Springs Middle School.

Mikayla Whitehurst was named runner-up. She is the daughter of Heath and Laura Whitehurst and attends Eagle Tech Academy.

Other participants were Jaclyn Fries and Lindsey Hoskins. Fries is the daughter of Tim and Maelynn Fries and attends Columbia City High School. Hoskins is the daughter of John Hoskins and Laura McGregor and attends Eagle Tech Academy.