MANATEE -- A Manatee Technical College graduate with a lifelong passion for nails took home a gold medal at the 2016 SkillsUSA Florida State Leadership and Skills Conference this week.
"The truth is I didn't expect it," Milena Cervantes said Thursday. "I thought, 'OK, you won a competition and now you know you're going to compete with people who each have their unique talents.'"
MTC students won 45 gold, 23 silver and 18 bronze medals, according to a release. Nearly 1,000 students and more than 100 high schools and colleges competed April 24-27 in Lakeland.
Formerly known as the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, SkillsUSA is a national organization serving those seeking careers in tech
nical, skilled and service occupations.
The competition tested Cervantes' skills in various aspects of nail care.
The 36-year-old Bradenton mother and other gold medalists will now compete at the 2016 SkillsUSA National Championships on June 20-24 in Louisville, Ky.
"I told myself, I'm going to do my job and see what God wants. It was surprising when my name came out in gold," said Cervantes in Spanish. "All the effort was worth it -- the work, the extra hours."
On April 12, Cervantes sat looking worried at a long table inside the college sitting across from a peer, Flor Quiroga, 31. Cervantes didn't yet know what she was going to design for the competition.
"She has taught me how to design everything," Quiroga told a Herald reporter that evening. "Because she has worked more nails than I have, she has a bit more knowledge. I didn't know anything."
A cluster of bottles and other supplies separated Cervantes and Quiroga. They leaned over fake nails glued onto round clothespins, testing different designs. Quiroga painted an ocean of multiple hues of blue across several nails, and Cervantes carefully painted a green eye on a single nail.
Fast forward to earlier this week at the 2016 Florida SkillsUSA Conference where Cervantes was tested in the technique of sculpting acrylic nails, gel nails and performing a pedicure. Cervantes, now enrolled in an English language class, hit a road bump during written and oral exams, which were in English.
"The interpreters couldn't help me. It was very difficult," she said. "I was trying to read and trying to comprehend what I was being told."
Cervantes chose to paint blue dolphins on a model's hand for her final test, which focused on art.
Her eyes now set on the final competition, Cervantes admits she still has the same fear.
"It's stronger, what's coming. They're going to demand more," she said. "We're going to be competing with the best of the best."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.