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Ride of a Lifetime
[August 09, 2011]

Ride of a Lifetime

Aug 09, 2011 (Albuquerque Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- As a professional barrel racer, Sydni Blanchard is used to turning corners at breakneck speed, but not even she was prepared for the pace of her life's latest twist.

In March, the Albuquerque rodeo star sustained a tailbone injury when her saddle broke midride and she hit it at an odd angle. The resulting nerve damage rendered her temporarily unable to walk; her legs couldn't bear weight, and they constantly shook. When she was rehabilitated enough to attempt a test "run" on horseback two months later, she tweaked it again. It was a devastating setback.

"(That) busted the air out of me, and I blacked out. I saw stars," Blanchard, 22, recalled of the pain. "After that, my confidence was at an alltime low, because I felt so good (otherwise). I could run and jump. It was like, 'why can't I ride?'" That was May.

Fast-forward to July 17, and Blanchard and her horse Shotgun were collecting a $100,000 purse for beating one of the world's most elite barrel racing fields at the famed Calgary Stampede. She also made history at the prestigious 99-yearold rodeo, which had never before seen an athlete in any event win four straight rounds. Blanchard won six in a row.

It's such a dizzying turnaround that even Blanchard is amazed.

"It just blows my mind," she said.

Blanchard already had a mighty impressive rodeo resume going into Calgary. She was the 2008 Women's Pro Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year; the 2010 College National Finals Rodeo Rookie of the Year (because rodeo isn't an NCAA sport, pros can compete collegiately); and she improved her 2010 world ranking to ninth after last December's National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nev.

Her NFR performance earned the La Cueva grad her first-ever invite to the Calgary Stampede. Blanchard said a Calgary invite is almost an accomplishment in itself -- only 20 women were picked for this year's barrel racing field. Calgary, which bills itself as "rodeo's roughest, richest ride," offered more than $2 million in total prize money this year.

"It's the toughest rodeo to get into, period," Blanchard said.

The Calgary opportunity made her injury that much more upsetting. Blanchard dreaded having to skip it, and she credits doctors and physical therapists for getting her back into competitive shape in time.

"Basically our goal was Calgary," Blanchard said. "I told them, 'I have to be able to get into that rodeo. I worked for years to get there.'" Mom Kandace Blanchard remembers the months-long grind of earlymorning therapy sessions at UNM -- where Sydni often rehabbed using underwater equipment, such as a treadmill -- and night-time deep-tissue massages.

"I couldn't have done all that, but she was dedicated, and she just did it," Kandace said. "She could've just laid in bed and felt sorry for herself, but she didn't." In the weeks preceding Calgary, Blanchard competed at a series of smaller rodeos to test herself. She said Shotgun instinctively understood the need to start slowly.

"Honestly, I can tell you he just knew. He knew to take care of me at the beginning. Our first few runs back, he was definitely taking care of me," she said of the muscular 9-year-old horse.

By the time they reached Calgary, they were in a rhythm. Blanchard won four straight days of pool competition in the tournament-style rodeo -- each win worth $5,500 -- plus a semifinal to reach the four-woman, $100,000 finale.

Kandace Blanchard said her daughter became a crowd favorite.

"They were standing in line to talk to her and get her autograph and take pictures," Kandace said. "That's not uncommon, but it's usually with the bull riders and the boys." Blanchard and Shotgun took the big-money title by edging runner-up Lindsay Sears by .05 seconds.

"Definitely the largest purse I've ever won, and I think it might be the most you can win in our sport altogether," said Blanchard, adding that her Canadian haul nearly doubled her career earnings.

Even though she remains in pain and estimates that she's only at 65-70 percent of her physical best, Blanchard has resumed her rigorous rodeo schedule. It's one that typically keeps her on the road nine months a year. That's partly because Shotgun is in his barrel racing prime. Horses with his ability "don't just come every day," said Blanchard who said success in barrel racing is 60 percent horse, 40 percent human. "You have to take advantage when you have one." But this year's scare strengthened her conviction to plan for a postrodeo life. She has an associate's degree from Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari but wants to resume studies next fall at Cal Poly and ultimately pursue a career in sports psychology.

"You can't do this forever," Blanchard said of rodeoing. "You can, but it comes to a point where if something happens, you need to have a backup plan for sure." Inside Edgewood's LeighAnn Scribner is an all-around champion cowgirl D5 To see more of the Albuquerque Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

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