When Elizabeth Galvan was 17, she was told she couldn't be a lifeguard because she's missing an arm.

When Elizabeth Galvan was 17, she was told she couldn't be a lifeguard because she's missing an arm.

She did it anyway.

"The teacher was really shocked that I successfully passed all the tests, and I became a lifeguard for four years," she told The Forum newspaper through an American Sign Language interpreter.

Elizabeth, who lost her arm in an accident when she was 3, lost her hearing after an unrelated illness the same year.

However, the 34-year-old Fargo woman doesn't limit herself, nor does she let others.

She drives, she stocks heavy boxes and products at her job at Walmart and she's about to compete in a national pageant.

"There are so many things I can do. I don't say, 'Oh, I can't.' No. I can," she says.

Elizabeth participated in a pageant as a teenager but hadn't considered it as an adult until a friend suggested it to her.

She sees the Dream Girls USA pageant as an opportunity to educate and inspire.

"My heart and passion have always been set on teaching people that differences open your mind to possibilities and not to judge people, like someone who has one leg, Down syndrome, any difference," she says.

She wants people to see them as differences, not disabilities.

"Don't look at it as a disability. We're not 'disabled.' The same goes for me - I don't consider myself handicapped. I'm a normal person. I'm the same as everyone else," she says.

Growing up in Fargo and Devil's Lake, she struggled with bullying and fitting in.

It wasn't until her teenage years that she realized she didn't have to listen to others telling her "You can't."

Since an encounter with another girl with one arm 18 years ago, Elizabeth has made it her goal to boost kids' self-confidence.

The girl's parents approached her at a basketball tournament and asked if she'd speak at their daughter's school.

"She was very lonely because the kids in school didn't understand why she was missing part of her arm," she says.

Elizabeth approached the girl after her presentation. The girl's parents started crying, which made her cry, and they hugged.

She'll never forget how her own experience made a difference in someone else's life.

"That's why my goal in this pageant is to open minds and teach that 'beauty' is not a perfect body or perfect skin - no. It's about your personality," she says.

Elizabeth recently found new inspiration for herself in 23-year-old Nicole Kelly.

Nicole, who was born without her left forearm, was crowned Miss Iowa and will be in the running for Miss America in September.

"She's a wonderful role model for me - she's entering nationals against all the other states and she has one arm," Elizabeth says.

This week, Elizabeth and her 11-year-old daughter, Brianna Thompson, head to St. Louis to compete side by side in Dream Girls USA nationals, Wednesday through Sunday.

The state pageant in April was Brianna's first. She didn't think she'd place but won in the preteen division.

"She's not a 'pageant girl,' but she shocked herself when she won. I told her, 'See! You can do it!' " Elizabeth says.

Contestants are judged based on interviews, personality, casual dress and formal wear, she says. No swimsuits.

"That's what I love about this competition - it shows who you are and that you're real. It's not about your body, it's about your personality," she says.

Elizabeth patiently taught her hearing daughter sign after sign using visual aids and finger-spelling, starting when Brianna was just a baby.

"I'd point at something, for example, a crown, finger-spell 'C-R-O-W-N,' and then I'd teach her the sign 'crown' (demonstrates placing a crown on her head)."

The sixth-grader says aside from how they communicate, there's really no difference between a signing mother-daughter relationship and a hearing one.

They enjoy typical mother-daughter activities like shopping or getting their nails done.

"That's kind of our bonding time," Brianna says.

A couple years ago, they modified a sign to make it special to them.

"We twist our index finger and middle finger to sign 'I really love you' instead of 'I love you,' " she says.

Elizabeth, who'll have interpreters from Fergus Falls, Minn., traveling with her to St. Louis for the pageant, encourages anyone to learn sign language.

"Everyone is different - all of us," she said. "But, for example, my philosophy is, some people say, 'Oh, they're in the deaf world, they're in the hearing world.' No. We're all in the same world."