Not a third wheel
All sports evolve . . . sometimes quietly, sometimes dramatically, always with growing pains.
In the mid 1950s a Lovington High School principal asked high school senior Betty Sims Solt, a ranch girl in New Mexico, whether she planned to rodeo, or to graduate. She gravely told him she hoped to do both; soon entering the record books of National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) as 1957 All Around Cowgirl, plus Barrel Racing Champion for both ’57 and ’58. Many years later she and friend Sylvia Gann Mahoney founded the NIRA Alumni Association. Sylvia is the subject of this “NIRA Moment in History.”
“I became a rodeo coach because I couldn’t say, ‘No’,” Sylvia confesses. “I was hired at New Mexico Junior College (NMJC) to teach English plus fill the job of one who’d been sponsor of the Rodeo Club. I felt I shouldn’t accept because I had not competed in rodeo. We had a horse and I rode – I had always been around rodeo, was at Troy Fort’s often with his daughter, but no competition.”
“They told me if I didn’t coach, no one else would. The county rodeo people built a rodeo arena at the college to have a rodeo club, so students could compete in college rodeo,” she says. “I consulted Tuffy Cooper and others, who assured me they’d be there to help and advise me.”
“NMJC’s board of trustees voted to make rodeo a college sport the first month I was on the job so was I officially a College Rodeo Coach. I attended coaches’ meetings and put on a rodeo annually, even contracting stock through Harry Vold,” Sylvia remembers.
Deciding to recruit some top cowgirls, and knowing Tuffy Cooper had watched them come up through high school rodeo, Sylvia asked for that advice he’d promised, pooled her scholarships for cowgirls, and Tami Noble and LaRae Higgins accepted.
“What a year – the team of two qualified for the CNFR!”, Sylvia marvels. “Then – oh no! I learned a team had to have three to go to the Finals.”
Calling Tim Corfield (who filled the chair today’s NIRA Commissioner holds) she heard, “Yes, you have to have three cowgirls who can compete in at least one event. Each must compete in one round. One insight,” he said, “The cowgirl does not have to have competed in a regional rodeo.”
Looking back, Sylvia says, “Cowgirls are creative thinkers, knowing how to deal with issues and succeed, knowing there are solutions, even improbable ones, that will work. Noble and Higgins headed for their roommate Lori Wafer, who competed in tennis for the college. Childhood horseback rides at her grandfather’s place, they assured her, predisposed her to rodeo. Higgins would mount her on an old, slow barrel horse…her grandchildren would love to hear the story someday!
“When they came to me to test their plan, their tennis player roommate had agreed to enter and run barrels. I immediately thought of injury,” Sylvia remembers. Conferring with the college’s administrators, they approved the plan – “maybe because watching barrel racers looks so easy,” she said. “Lori, a fearless spirit fueled by desire to help her friends, went to LaRae’s to practice on her old childhood barrel horse.”
Lori’s one run – in the opening performance – proved them right. Sylvia says, “‘I stood by the fence watching. LaRae had schooled her well – stay focused, succeed by circling three barrels, no speed. A coach standing by me said, ‘I think something must be wrong with her horse.’ I wanted to tell him he’d just seen one of the most important, difficult, amazing barrel runs at the finals.
LaRae had her best rodeo of the year, winning the short round of breakaway roping in 3.3, second to Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s (SEOSU) Sabrina Pike for the average, and right behind her as runner-up for the CNFR All-Around. Tami Noble was 1982 ‘Rookie of the Year’, and Lori was a champion in her own way, qualifying her team – yet Sylvia was no more aware that her three were Reserve Team Champions than she was that five years later she’d marry John Mahoney, who’d just coached his Vernon Junior College Men’s Team to a title!
“I had no idea my team members – two tough cowgirls and one fearless novice cowgirl – had a chance to place second in the nation! This was before computers were used to compile digital rodeo results, so all was surprise, excitement, and disbelief until Jim Shoulders presented the 1982 National second place Women’s Team plaque . . . second to Betty Gayle Cooper’s powerhouse SEOSU team!,” Sylvia remembers. “How exciting, especially since we were friends and both grew up in Lea County, New Mexico.
“I’m so pleased we have a photo. Lori’s photos prove competition in the 1982 College National Finals Rodeo, on the team that won second in the nation! I’m happy the plaque is in the NMJC showcase. I wish it could talk, as there is so much more to winning than just being competitive! Role models who challenged the odds and won, they were maybe the most unique winners I ever saw through the years, because after being placed in the spotlight at the CNFR the rules were changed by the NIRA Board, their record still stands!”
Those amazing moments simply tip Sylvia’s coaching career. “After the first year, at least two of my cowboys qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) each year. We went to the CNFR six of the seven years I coached,” she says, reflecting, “College rodeo is a good way to see life as it should be, mostly.”
“After ten years I married a college rodeo coach and went to all the Southwest Region rodeos. In 1992 I helped Betty Solt start the Alumni Association, serving seven years as president until the group became stable and successful; and writing my book COLLEGE RODEO: FROM SHOW TO SPORT, Texas A&M Press, 2004. I went to the CNFR 35 consecutive years, 1979 to 2014, watching many contestants’ children come up the ranks to compete.” (1008 Words)
Sylvia labels herself “a non-traditional student,” enrolling at NMJC when her second child entered kindergarten. “I liked it so well I decided to get my Master’s degree, then teach there.” With kids in school she made the 175-mile round trip daily, always making it home before they got home. Her final studies were accomplished at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) in Portales, BA summa cum laude. After teaching all day at Hobbs High School, 25 miles south of Lovington, she earned her MA driving one night weekly to Portales plus three years of summer school. “Then I was hired at NMJC,” she says.
“It’s so important to get an education while young, and I felt the rodeo job was there for me to help students find a reason to go to college. In turn, NMJC made me an official rodeo coach, and the contestants took me into the world of rodeo – even better, into the family of rodeo,” Sylvia says. “I believe we are given opportunities perhaps much more rewarding than we could ever imagine, perhaps leading to other outstanding opportunities. My book on college rodeo, helping found the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum and becoming its’ first Executive Director for ten years. I’m lucky to have such profound opportunities.” F
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