Nine Alaska high school cowboys and cowgirls were in Gillette, Wyo., last week, competing in the 57th annual National High School Finals Rodeo. Jackie Rainwater, Jennifer Murray and Paul Campbell of Soldotna; Sierra and Rhianna Carr, Amanda Merchant and Michelle Schade of Homer; Josh Rappelea of Palmer; and Ray Smith of Anchorage put their skills to the test in competitions of barrel running, pole bending, breakaway roping, goat tying and bull riding.
The competition proved too tough for Alaska's competitors to return with titles, with some 1,500 contestants from 40 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia vying for national titles, prizes and pieces of more than $200,000 in college scholarships.
Schade, 17, also wore a sparkling crown wrapped around her cowboy hat as Alaska's entrant in the queen competition.
"The queen competition is extremely demanding," said Mary Rainwater of Soldotna, who helped Schade prepare for the national competition. "(Contestants) have to go through a series of seminars before they get to the competition. One was on interviewing skills and giving speeches, another was on clothing, another was hair and makeup and another was horsemanship."
An additional written test was administered to queen contestants in Gillette. "This is not just a beauty pageant. They want to know what their academics are like. They want to know all about these girls."
Schade's hours of practice four to eight a day, according to Rainwater were evident at Ninilchik's recent rodeo as she flashed her smile at photographers, patiently answered questions and competed in several events, barrel riding being her favorite. Her horsemanship abilities began developing with Sheena, a horse that was given to her by her parents, Doug Schade and Stacy Murphy, when Schade was 3 years old.
"There have been a few times I couldn't believe I was actually riding horses," she said, adding with a laugh, "As I'm hitting the ground. But other than that, there has never been a time I didn't want to ride. It's been my passion since I was little."
When she was 9, Schade fell off a horse and broke her wrist, but, as the advice goes, she got back in the saddle and has been there ever since.
"Sometimes (riding) can be a challenge," she said. "It's a feeling of knowing you have a 1,000-pound animal underneath you and you can make it do anything you want. Go fast, slow, turn, anything. All it takes is one thing to make it mad and it can really hurt you, but there's something you do that makes this animal listen to you. It's an amazing feeling, having this huge creature and you being in control."
Schade considers Silver, a 14-year-old paint, her best friend.
"He is just amazing," she said. "I spend a lot of time with him, anytime I can get out and pet him, give him something to eat, or just go out and say, 'Hi.'"
She decided to enter the rodeo queen competition for the experience, and was surprised when she won the state title.
"They called the runner-up and I stepped forward to take it and they called the other girl's name and I almost passed out," she said. "I was riding someone else's horse so, on a new horse I wasn't sure about anything. I thought I blew my whole competition. And then, it was like, holy cow, a big surprise."
The speech Schade prepared for the national competition is about Alaska's membership in the NHSRA. In late 2004, with Rainwater's help, the state joined the national organization that was formed in 1947. Her husband, Mike, is Alaska's national director. The NHSRA has an annual membership of 10,500 students and sanctions more than 1,100 rodeos each year.
Part of Schade's speech thanks those who helped her earn the state crown and compete on the national level.
"(Rainwater) loaned me her horse, helped me get my speech down and has practically taken me in," she said. "I wouldn't have won this crown if it hadn't been for my family and her."
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