Two years ago Michelle Lombardo was a freshman at the University of Connecticut, taking courses in nutrition but thinking, This is ridiculous. I don't belong here. I should be on a beach somewhere. I can spend my days wallowing in textbooks when I'm older, but I can only be young now. So a few days after the semester ended, she attended her sister's graduation ceremony at Central Connecticut State and then, at one o'clock the following morning, she and her father climbed into a car parked in front of the family's home in Glastonbury, Conn., and drove west, headed for Los Angeles. She had visited L.A. only once, but she knew it was where she wanted to live. Her dad helped her get an apartment and then went back to Glastonbury. She got a job as a hostess at a restaurant and played as much beach volleyball as she could. � Early this summer, Lombardo heard about the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Fresh Faces contest. She was one of 2,787 women who entered, submitting photos of herself and a short essay about her involvement in sports (she captained her high school volleyball team). She was one of 40 who made the initial cut, as selected by a panel made up of representatives from SI and Next Model Management. In August she flew to Chicago for the next step: a quick face-to-face meeting with judges and a catwalk competition between matches at an AVP beach volleyball event on the shores of Lake Michigan. With her mom in the stands, Lombardo was picked as one of the eight women to move on to the next round. "I was so happy, I thought my face was going to rip," she says.
Lombardo and the rest of the Elite Eight then appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, acting in a skit with Danny DeVito. It was then, Lombardo says, that life started to feel a little surreal—not just because she was sharing a stage with DeVito, but because she and her brother had been in Kilborn's audience just a few months ago. "It was like, Wow, now I'm on the other side," she says.
The eight hopefuls then advanced through brackets on the basis of Internet voting and another round of judging. The two finalists were Lombardo and Maggi Caruthers, a 21-year-old waitress from Wichita, Kans. In November both women went to a beach near Dana Point, Calif., where each was the subject of her own full-scale swimsuit shoot. It was the first time Lombardo had been at the center of such an elaborate operation—with makeup artists and art directors swirling around her as the sun rose—but whatever nervousness she felt quickly dissolved when the camera started clicking. "What surprised me was how well it went," she says. "It felt very easy. Even though it was freezing in the morning...and I was in the water a couple times."
After that shoot, Lombardo and Caruthers went up against each other in a final Internet vote, the result of which was one factor the judges considered in choosing a winner. Lombardo received regular updates on the Internet vote tally from her grandparents back in Connecticut, who don't have a computer but would visit the public library each day to go online. "My grandfather was a U.S. Marine," Lombardo says. "He's 80 now, and I know that he and his old Marine buddies were all voting."
The Corps can now stand down and enjoy the fruits of its labor. In a segment on Dateline NBC, scheduled for Feb. 6, Lombardo would learn that she was the winner—and that her pictures would run in these pages. "This is a dream come true," Lombardo says. "I would always pick up my brother's copy of the Swimsuit Issue. I always thought that if I ever did get into modeling, I would love to make it into SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."
With this Fresh Faces win, Lombardo receives a car and a contract with a model agency. While she intends to go back to school someday, and also to move back East—she misses the winters, of all things—she hopes to make a career in front of the camera. In her previous stabs at modeling, people in the industry told her she wasn't thin enough and that her chest was too large. "I don't think they really knew what to do with me," she says.
Perhaps these photos will give them a few ideas.