Sierra Dawn Thomas
By Neal Reid
Most people don't enjoy being tested regularly and pushed to their mental and physical limits, but barrel racer Sierra Dawn Thomas is not most people.
The 27-year-old from Roy, Utah, recently experienced a most severe test when she competed on CBS' hit show "Survivor." Thomas was part of the Blue Collar (Escameca) tribe on "Survivor 30: Worlds Apart," which begins airing on the network on Feb. 25.
This installment of the wildly popular series took place in San Juan del Sur, Rivas, Nicaragua, and split up 18 "castaways" into three tribes – White Collar, Blue Collar and No Collar – to compete for a $1 million first-place prize. The 6-foot-1 Thomas, who turned down a college basketball scholarship to compete in rodeo, viewed the chance to compete on "Survivor" as an opportunity to feed her competitive fire.
"In my everyday life, I feel like I'm trying to survive," Thomas said. "Anybody who's been on the rodeo road knows how tough it is. Things happen every day, and you have to adjust.
"Things don't always go the way you want, but you have to keep pushing through. I'm an athlete. I did four sports in high school and I rodeo, and with all of those things, I thought, "You know what? I could do this. I can go out there and take everything it throws at me and be a strong competitor.'"
To say Thomas is competitive would be an understatement.
"I have been competitive since I can remember," she said. "I remember when I was in third grade, I got in trouble because I got out in dodge ball, and I took off my shoe and threw it at the kid who got me out. Even to this day, shopping with my best friends, I'm competitive.
"It's just the core of who I am, and I know no different way."
2015 Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, Rapid City, S.D.
PHOTO BY: Peggy Gander
It remains to be seen how Thomas performed in Nicaragua, and she had to refrain from talking about specifics regarding the show, but the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for the cowgirl.
"It was amazing," she said. "It was everything I thought it would be and more. You prepare yourself for what you think it's going to be like, and it's so much more than that.
"It was an awesome experience, and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to do it."
Thomas said she learned a lot about herself through the process of competing on the show.
"You think you're strong and can do these things, but when you're pushed to the limit, you test yourself," she said. "That isn't always a bad thing. You realize how strong you can really be."
Thomas has received an overwhelming amount of support from her hometown and the rodeo community since it was announced she had been selected for the show.
"It has been such a whirlwind," she said. "I have so many supporters and people who are rooting for me. I have a great community here at home, and Roy has been so great to me.
"Even in the rodeo world, I've gotten so many phone calls and text messages from girls I've competed against. It's been so much fun, and I've loved every second of it."
Thomas believes her appearance on the show will bring a multitude of rodeo fans to the "Survivor" viewership family.
"I think "Survivor' is going to get a whole new fan base, as far as the rodeo world goes," she said. "We're a big crowd, and a lot of people have told me they've never seen the show, but are going to tune in to watch a cowgirl go at it. I think that's exciting."
Thomas, a four-time Wilderness Circuit Finals qualifier (2009-12), has renewed confidence going forward in her barrel racing career thanks to her "Survivor" experience.
"I try to take something from every experience I have in life, and that absolutely made me stronger mentally and physically," she said. "I came home, and I was ready to get back out there. It lit a fire underneath me and made me realize how truly blessed I am to have the opportunities I have in life.
"It made me super excited to get back home and get back at it. Absolutely, I would do it again."
Thomas has been an athlete for as long as she can remember, and she played basketball, volleyball and competed in track and field and cross country in high school. After turning down a basketball scholarship offer from Weber State University, Thomas competed in rodeo and completed an undergraduate degree in criminal justice there after a brief detour to Tarleton State University for a year.
The high school and college national champion is now "very close" to completing the master's program in her chosen field, with an emphasis in corrections.
Her partners in crime in rodeo are a 19-year-old jet black Thoroughbred named Tomahawk she raised since she was 8 and a sorrel quarter horse named Dimmer. Tomahawk, who stands at 17 hands tall, is back in fine form after recovering from sesamoid surgery in his ankle.
The duo recently placed third in Rapid City, S.D., and Tomahawk's return has been a blessing for Thomas.
"He came back stronger than ever," she said. "This horse has so much heart, so I knew he wasn't done."
Thomas plans to rodeo hard this year, and she has big goals for the rest of her barrel racing career.
"I'm going to go pretty hard and try to get the circuit finals made and try to qualify for those big winter rodeos for next year," she said. "Without a doubt, (the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo) would be something I want to do and am shooting for. It's tough, and I know some girls who have made it, so I know how hard it is.
"When you rodeo hard, you have that end prize in your sights."
Spoken like a true competitor.
Sierra Dawn Thomas (far right) laughs with other members of the Blue Collar team on the 2015 season of Survivor.
PHOTO BY: CBS Survivor