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Libby's rodeo life: Scottsbluff High junior rides for love of the sport despite health risks
July 30, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Photos by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen - The scores of buckles won by Libby Winchell and her family adorn the walls of their living room, including one from her recent competition at the High School Nationals.

While in the sixth grade, Libby Eloise Winchell might have given up rodeo only several years after getting her first taste of it. If not for her sheer determination and competitive spirit, she might have.

In 2011, doctors discovered Libby had optic neuritis, and not knowing at first, treated her with a steroid, which further complicated her case, causing her to also suffer a perforated ulcer. Though she is well enough to ride and compete on the high school rodeo circuit, she still suffers from chronic migraines.

After receiving the official diagnosis from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., she was told by her ophthalmologist in Denver, there would be some amount of risk if she continued to compete. “I have had a constant headache for five years,” said Libby, who is now 16 and entering her junior year at Scottsbluff High School. “I could fall, and my nerves could swell. It’s a risk you take every time you are out there. A risk worth taking, I think.”

Her mother Shawna said: “There’s risk in everything. This is something she loves to do. We take all the necessary precautions. She wears a helmet. When she practices, we regard safety as a top priority. The type of horses she rides assure this kind of safety. We don’t buy horses that don’t know their job.”
Libby learned how to rodeo at an early age. Her first memory of ever riding was at about age 4 at junior rodeos. Since that time, aside from attending school, there has been little else to fill her schedule.
A few weeks ago, Libby travelled to Rock Springs, Wyo., for the recent High School Rodeo Nationals, and took home the Reserve National Champion title in Goat Tying. She competed as member of the Nebraska High School Association or “Team Nebraska” at this rodeo which closed out the season.
But there’s not much time for resting on laurels. Starting in August, Libby will be back at it. This year, she’ll be competing in about 29 rodeos during the high school season. That’s not including rodeos outside the normal schedule at events that could enhance her resume. Although she’s focused on her high school career, it won’t be too long before college teams come calling to offer her a full-ride scholarship.

In growing up, most of Shawna’s family was involved in rodeo, including Shawna’s dad who rodeo’d for Chadron State. Her father was also involved in starting the CSC rodeo team. “When my husband Mike and I started having kids, we took them to rodeos,” she said. “We introduced our oldest Shelby to it, and she liked it. Mike and I coached them. It’s just us and the girls. Libby started at an even younger age. When she started, it was almost a natural thing.”

Shawna shrugs off the thought of being an umbrella parent, or a parent who pushes her kids into sports as a way of vicariously living through them. She said: “When we leave the driveway (for rodeos), Mike will say, ‘we don’t have to go.’ And, of course, they want to go.”
It’s more than just riding horses and roping. There’s a bond among those who rodeo. Shawna expressed it as “friendships (the girls) have earned. Rodeo has been good to us. It’s paid for Shelby’s school, and Libby is doing the same thing. It’s always something they wanted to do. It takes a lot of work. It’s all self-driven. In the early mornings, they get up and exercise the horses. No one tells them they have to do it. We do this as a family. We’re sort of old school. We do expect our kids to carry themselves a certain way.”
Libby said: “Usually every weekend is about full. Our high school doesn’t realize it as a sport; a lot of schools don’t. We’re on our own. Like, I miss a lot of Fridays because we have to get to places by Saturday morning. Most of the rodeos are in central and eastern Nebraska. So, they’re quite a ways.”

The Chadron State Eagles might be one of those schools to come knocking next year. And, it doesn’t hurt when it’s a school that both her mother Shawna and her older sister Shelby rode for as team members, having won their fair share of hardware, proven by the scores of buckles adorning their living room. They have paved the way in lessons in several events including the three in which Libby has excelled. Aside from Libby’s favorite, goat tying, she also competes in barrel racing, and break away.

“Mom rodeo’d and my sister rodeo’d,” she said. “It’s just kind of in the family. I’m a pretty competitive person. And, it’s what I do. It’s our sport. Other people have volleyball, and basketball, but this is our life; this is what we do. I love it. Right now, I am in high school rodeo, and then after high school rodeo, then you move up to college rodeo, and then hopefully you go pro.”

Shelby said, “I think it’s fair to say we’re both pretty competitive. We always joke because she does the younger sibling syndrome or disease, and has to do things better than me.” Interrupting, Libby added: “I just gotta out-do her. I can’t let her do everything. Being seven years apart doesn’t matter.”

Despite this undercurrent of a sibling rivalry, Shelby and Libby often find themselves working in tandem. “You get really close with your travel partners,” Libby said. “When you’re on the road, then you have to be.”

Even if there’s an outside chance Libby doesn’t earn a scholarship, she’ll have plenty in her college fund. At the high school nationals, she earned $1,250 in scholarship money on top of collecting buckles, and gift certificates.
Shawna added: “Mike’s dad was a basketball coach, and being raised around sports, he brings that to the table. And, what helps is that we have a lot of associations with other people and friends who understand what we’re doing here.”
Among them, Libby said there are several people she thought were especially supportive, and that she wanted to thank publicly: “the family’s veterinarian Dr. Dale Kurtz, the Pioneer Animal Clinic staff, and Todd Boggs at Chiropractic Concepts. And, special thanks to family and friends,” she said.

Upon leaving the corral, a group of goats that had gathered to watch Libby during a practice ride, parted like the Red Sea as both Shelby and Libby walked through. The dust settled behind blending somewhat with the waves of a triple-digit day from the sun beating down, Shelby uttered what was most likely a recurring refrain during most practice days resulting in Libby’s rodeo accomplishments, and an ode to a family that stands behind her: “Team Winchell!”

Libby Winchell saddles her quarter horse Blaze for an exercise run. The trailer in the background not only transports the horses, it becomes her family’s temporary home during trips to rodeos across Nebraska.

Libby Winchell during a practice run.
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