By Jolee Jordan
Claremore, Oklahoma—As the summer run looms for rodeo contestants, most expect challenges in their paths as they chase their dreams down the highways of America. And while weather and other traveling hazards are an often anticipated test to their dedication to their chosen sport, most competitors would agree that Mother Nature has definitely upped the ante in 2019.
Just months after historic flooding coupled with a horrendous ice storm to devastate Nebraska and neighboring states, the weather was dominating the headlines once again as the Memorial Day weekend began. With meteorologists predicting some of the worst storms possible in Oklahoma, rodeo cowboys and cowgirls braved the elements to compete across the Midwest.
The committee behind the Will Rogers Stampede PRCA Rodeo in Claremore, Oklahoma has a long track record as one of the contestants’ favorite spots. Offering home cooked hospitality, a good purse and a great, welcoming atmosphere, Claremore has certainly earned its five titles for the PRCA’s Small Rodeo of the Year.
Their dedication to producing a quality rodeo was definitely tested as the 73rd annual event approached in 2019. Located just northeast of Tulsa, Claremore was right in the path as major storms rolled through the state. The town watched closely as flood warnings were posted throughout their area, including for the nearby Verdigris River, which was forecast to rise to 46 feet by the Sunday of the rodeo.
Roads were closed all around the community due to the flooding and tornado warnings gripped most of the state for days. In fact, storms across the Midwest killed six people over the long holiday weekend, injuring another 92 as 170 tornadoes were reported.
In Claremore, more than nine inches of rain fell on the Stampede Arena in a matter of days in the lead up to the rodeo, prompting the committee to remove dirt from the arena floor, to mitigate the depth and severity of the mud, and to put in countless hours above their normal high level to prep for the rodeo.
During a pre-rodeo steer roping event, tornado sirens sent rodeo staff packing to the nearby water treatment plant to seek shelter.
“Spent part of our night at the steer roping, part at the water treatment plant taking shelter. Must be Claremore Rodeo time,” PRCA announcer and 2017 WPRA Announcer of the Year Scott Grover joked on Facebook once the storms had cleared.
In the end, more than 20 inches of rain fell throughout the week and crew and volunteers spent two nights taking shelter from imminent tornadoes.
“The committee was amazing and had a flooded arena each morning,” said Peggy Gander, of Cowboy Images who photographed the rodeo, who also noted that they lost power at some point every night. “They worked the arena all day to be beautiful at night and then got more rain each night between midnight and 7 A.M. They worked so hard.”
The efforts paid off with ground conditions much better than they should or could have been on Friday morning, May 24th for the slack to kick off the rodeo.
One cowgirl who didn’t have too much road to navigate was Tracy Nowlin. Nowlin lives just about 35 miles north of Claremore at Nowata, an easy enough 45 minute drive if all the roads are open.
“I drove through standing water to get there,” she noted wryly. “They said I wouldn’t be able to get home that way but they hadn’t closed it yet when I got back through there.”
Competing on Friday night during the first performance, Nowlin and her great mare Dolly Jo smoked the field with a blistering time of 17.19 seconds. The run was exciting but almost outdone when Dolly Jo tripped after crossing the line, nearly falling hard to the dirt. Thankfully, the catty mare regained her feet quickly and Nowlin stuck to her saddle.
“There was a spot that was a little deeper and I don’t know if she hit that spot or what,” Nowlin said, noting that the mare did not pull off a shoe or cut herself on the fall. “She just jumped up like a cat. My reins had flipped out of my hand and were hanging on her ear. I was trying to get ahold of them so she didn’t step on them.”
“It’s funny how time feels like it’s standing still on those deals and you’re having all these things go through your mind,” she says. “I couldn’t tell you anything during a run.”
“We were blessed to be able to walk out of that.”
Though Janie Johnson came close to catching Nowlin on Saturday night with her time of 17.27 seconds, Nowlin’s lead held up through the weekend for a big win worth $1,843.
“It’s a good win because it’s almost like a hometown rodeo for me,” says Nowlin. “It’s precious because I know everyone there.”
Nowlin has faced her share of challenges in 2019, after making her first appearance at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) last December. Health issues that impaired her in Las Vegas have plagued her throughout the new season.
“I have a bulging disc in my neck, two tears in my bicep and two in the elbow. They just diagnosed it as thoracic outlet syndrome,” she says. “They don’t know where to start on fixing me.”
Surgery is the likely answer but Nowlin is hoping to hold off until fall. Until then, she’s relying on twice weekly visits to the chiropractor.
Adding to her challenge, Nowlin hadn’t been running or even riding much due to the inclement weather in her area. She turned out of several rodeos in the weeks prior to Claremore because of ground conditions and said that Dolly Jo hadn’t fired on their last run prior to the Will Rogers Stampede.
“She just high loped and I was worried at Claremore if she’d actually run or not because we’d hadn’t gotten to make any runs with all the mud,” she admits. “But when she walked in there, she picked up like, ‘I know where I’m at.’ It’s amazing how they know those things.”
Nowlin had been the bridesmaid here before, winning second on a couple of different occasions. But it was her first win in what she describes as a couple of decades of competing at the Stampede.
“They did a heck of a job keeping it as even as they could,” she heaped praise upon the committee. “My night was probably the best but I think they picked up checks across all the perfs and slack.”
“I was up the best night . . . there were no tornadoes that night,” she alludes to the Thursday and Saturday night warnings that sent folks seeking shelter.
The weather continues to plague her area though. With so many roads closed, she can’t get much done at home.
“I can’t get to my feed store to get feed and I can’t get to the chiropractor,” she says in frustration, noting that her barn was flooded and unusable at the moment as well. “I sure wish it would stop raining.”
The earnings help keep Nowlin on top of the Prairie Circuit standings and moved her to 42nd in the WPRA World standings. Her primary goal is to win enough to qualify back to RodeoHouston next season.
As the summer gets busy, Nowlin again wanted to thank the committee and volunteers behind the Stampede for the efforts in keeping the ground conditions safe and fair.
“I don’t know how they did it,” she says simply.
For more information on the Will Rogers Stampede, visit them on-line at www.willrogersstampede.com or at Facebook, Will Rogers Stampede PRCA Rodeo.
- Tracy Nowlin, 17.19, $1,843
- Janie Johnson, 17.37, $1,579
- Kelly Tovar, 17.44, $1,316
- Leia Pluemer, 17.45, $1,141
- Jill Wilson, 17.50, $877
- Lacinda Rose, 17.57, $702
- Leslie Smalygo, 17.68, $526
- Jamie Chaffin, 17.69, $351
- Emily Hamrick, 17.72, $263
- Kaysie Burgess, 17.78, $175