The approximately 20,000-seat arena in Casper, Wyo., is packed. As Sharon sits atop Snip, her horse, at the gate and waits, she knows that the rider who wins will probably be separated only by 0.01 of a second from the rider who comes in second. She knows she only has one chance--and it's going to be over fast.
The gate is thrown open. Sharon and her mare spring into the arena and charge toward a goat that is tied to a stake on a 10-foot rope, about 80 feet away.
In just a few seconds, they're there. She brings her right leg over Snip and around to the horse's left side. Sharon slips out of the stirrup, dropping down to the ground. As Sharon hits the ground, the goat runs to the left. She catches it, picks it up, flips it and ties three of its legs together using a length of string--durable string that was made for rodeos and that she has held clenched in her teeth for this purpose. Once Sharon's hands are free, her time stops. 6.7 seconds.
The goat stays down for the required six seconds, making Sharon's time valid. And then it's over. She has won. Kate Sharon is the best college woman goat tier in the country.
As one of five MSU cowgirls who competed in the national finals, Sharon's individual championship was key to helping the MSU women's rodeo team win the 2011 national title. Since 1949 when Montana State became one of the original 14 schools in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, the MSU men's and women's rodeo teams collectively have won eight national titles--more than all other sports teams combined in the university's history.
Most Westerners have been to rodeos as spectators, but few understand what rodeo really is and the tenacity required to win a national championship, according to MSU rodeo coach Mike True.
"There's no margin for error," he said. "You have to be at your very best for a few seconds, and then it's over until next time. You have to be ready right now. It's very demanding psychologically."
At MSU, the rodeo team operates under the umbrella of the Division of Student Success and is comprised of about 50 student-athletes. About 20 of those athletes receive full or partial scholarships. The rest apply to a walk-on program. True estimates the members of the team spend about 15-20 hours in practice each week.
In addition, the members of the team, with the exception of those who compete exclusively in rough stock events like bull riding, also must own or lease horses to use in practice and at competition--which adds significant time and expense for the participants.
And, the competition is fierce, with rodeo teams from approximately 130 colleges and universities across the country competing in the college finals. Collegiate women's rodeo events include barrel racing, breakaway roping, goat tying and team roping. The men compete in team roping, bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, steer wrestling and tie-down roping. For regional rodeos, True selects the team members who compete in individual events. At the college finals, team members must qualify individually to participate in an event.
For True, a popular coach now in his seventh year, rodeo at MSU offers student-athletes wonderful opportunities to learn, both in the classroom and in the world of rodeo on a team with a good reputation. Some former MSU student-athletes, such as Dan Mortenson and Bud Monroe, have gone on to successful professional rodeo careers.
"We're proud of the balance this program has between competitive success, academic success and helping people grow," True said. "The students arrive here as 18-year-olds, and then four or five years down the road, we're shaking hands with an adult who can handle anything. Rodeo mixed in with school makes them stronger."
Here's a look at four students who helped the MSU 2011 women's rodeo team win the national title.
Robbi Nace placed second in barrel racing at the 2011 CNFR. Nace grew up in Selinsgrove, Penn., and has been riding horses since she was 4 years old. She knew she wanted to be on a college rodeo team, and MSU stood out, both for the strength of its team and its academic merits.
"I had a couple of offers to small schools in the middle of nowhere in Texas," Nace said. "I wanted a four-year degree that means something."
Nace is majoring in secondary education with an emphasis in history and social studies broadfield. After graduation, she plans to become a teacher. Her academic and career goals illustrate an important point, she said--the members of the rodeo team are, first and foremost, students.
"There is this stigma that we're all taking easy classes," Nace said. "That's not the case. We're serious students. We fit the term 'student-athlete' to a T."
Nace is on a full scholarship through the rodeo team. Not only has rodeo helped her get a great education, but it also has taught Nace values that transfer over into other aspects of her life.
"Rodeo has definitely made me who I am," she said. "It drives me to do well in almost anything. To try to get the best grades I can and not to be a slacker. To try to help everybody around me."
Dani Dowton, who competed in breakaway roping, grew up on a ranch in Ellis, Idaho. She chose MSU for its proximity to home, the strength of the College of Agriculture and the rodeo team.
Dowton and several other members of the team rent a home with 10 acres in Belgrade. When she's not at school, practice or a rodeo, she can normally be found outdoors, riding.
"I try to ride all three of my horses every day," she said.
With food, vet bills, rodeo entry fees and other expenses, the financial aspect of keeping horses and competing in rodeos can be challenging, but Dowton said it's worth it. Plus, she has learned valuable life skills from rodeo.
"I've learned that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get anything done," said the sophomore majoring in ag business. "It takes dedication, preparation and time."
Dowton easily identifies the best part about being involved in rodeo: It's the community she found through it.
"The rodeo kids have all become my friends, all 50 of them," she said. "It's been great."
One of those friends is Hannah Sharon, who was also a member of the MSU championship team and earned a seventh place finish in barrel racing at the college finals. In order to simplify the logistics of caring for her horses, Sharon transferred this year to the University of Montana-Western in her hometown of Dillon.
Kate Sharon, the champion goat tier and Hannah Sharon's sister, continually sets goals for herself because they help her stay focused.
"Rodeo is 90 percent a mental game," she said.
When Sharon enrolled at MSU, one large goal was to win the college finals in rodeo.
"I'm really competitive, and I've always had the end result in mind," Sharon said. "That has pointed me in the right direction."
Sharon has worked tirelessly for years to achieve her goal. Since she first got up on a horse at 5 years old, Sharon has spent thousands of hours riding. She has exercised, fed, shoed and otherwise cared for her animals, including Snip, the horse she rode at the CNFR. Sharon and Snip worked together for nearly eight years before competing in the college finals--long enough and hard enough that they trust one another. And, before the competition itself, Sharon carefully studied the goats used, taking notes about their temperaments, about whether they were predisposed to run left or right, whether or not they tended to kick.
Winning the title felt amazing, Sharon said, and with one goal checked off her list, she is also on her way to achieving a second: becoming a veterinarian. She graduated from MSU in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences and is now a graduate student in animal sciences, as well as an assistant coach for the rodeo team. She plans to apply to vet schools across the country and is considering working toward a doctorate.
She predicts her academic and co-curricular interests will intersect for a long time.
"I'll always have horses, and I know I'll always rope," Sharon said. "I want to be an equine vet, so rodeo will be in my life for a while. It's in my blood."
Lexy Rianda knows about perseverance. About four years ago, during her freshman year at MSU, the equine science major from Kalispell broke her leg while competing in a goat tying event.
"During my first rodeo at MSU, I hit the ground, and my leg snapped," she said. "It was very traumatizing...I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is the end of my career.'"
Rianda had enrolled at MSU and joined the rodeo team as a way of following in her father's footsteps. In the 1980s, during a 26-year span when the college finals were held at Montana State, Bruce Rianda competed in steer wrestling for Hartnell College, located in Salinas, Calif. It was his first trip to Montana, and he was hooked. Ten years later, he and his wife moved their family to the Flathead Valley.
"I always knew I wanted to rodeo," Rianda said. "My parents set me on a horse when I was little, little. Ever since I can remember, I've been riding."
Through her participation in the sport, Rianda has learned how important it is to prepare mentally before competition.
"I try to channel my emotions of being nervous and scared into a mindset that helps me perform well," she said. "I know that so many things are outside my control, and so I also try to be thankful for everything I do have instead of frustrated when things don't go right."
During the 2011 college finals, Rianda helped propel the team to first by placing eighth in goat tying.
"I can't even explain how we all felt," Rianda said. "We had done the best we could do, and our accomplishment showed that. It was so cool."