By Jolee Lautaret-Jordan
Livermore, California — There was a time—not that long ago—that a competitor might have to wait for some time, days even, to find out the final results of a rodeo in which he or she had competed. Technology has brought that wait time down to almost nothing, first with a dedicated results line through pro rodeo’s central entry system and later with the internet and social media. In fact, Facebook and its cohorts are sure to light up almost as soon as the competition happens.
The advancing speed of knowledge has little impact on Arizona cowgirl Jill Welsh. After laying down an incredible run of 17.14 seconds as the very first runner in the slack at the Livermore Rodeo, Welsh never checked back to see how her time was faring against the rest of the 54 cowgirls coming after her.
“I didn’t think about it, really,” she laughs. “I was just glad to made a clean run. I didn’t look again until the end of the weekend.”
Perhaps her attitude is born of facing things much bigger than barrel racing in her young life. Four years ago, at just 26 years of age, Welsh was diagnosed with kidney cancer, a discovery made after she had what she described as, “my first heart attack.”
Welsh battled through and came back to her first love, horses and running barrels, and soon purchased French First Watch, aka Custer, from former Wrangler National Finals Rodeo cowgirl Rachel Myllymaki.
But just as she was beginning to live out the life of which she had dreamed, cancer reared its head again six months later, having now spread to her GI tract and her ovaries. It was a particularly scary development given that Welsh had lost her Aunt Grace, an Indian National Finals Rodeo Hall of Fame cowgirl, to ovarian cancer when she was quite young.
“They didn’t catch it in time for my Aunt Grace,” says Welsh, adding that she has been through four surgeries and two separate rounds of radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Through it all, the cowgirl remains upbeat. “I’m glad it seems to be working.”
Welsh was clearly bred to be a cowgirl and her mother Sandra began taking Welsh and big brother Kyle to gymkhanas when the young cowgirl was just five. They progressed to junior rodeos, high school rodeos and eventually college too. Welsh qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo three out of four years in the goat tying and also made the barrels in her senior season.
“I just loved it from the beginning,” says Welsh of her rodeo lifestyle.
These days, Welsh and her big brother own a tobacco shop in their hometown of Parker, Ariz., a small community on the Colorado River just south of Lake Havasu City. Though the business keeps them busy, Welsh is able to slip away to some rodeos with the help of her mom.
“She holds down the fort so I can go to the rodeos whenever I want,” she says. She also relies on Kyle for help on the rodeo trail.
“Since I’m not the healthiest, my brother has been really nice. He helps me out, saddles for me, whatever I need,” she says, noting that he is a team roper who also gets to enter a rodeo or two sometimes. “He’s given up a lot to help me.”
With 10 months since her last treatments, Welsh is feeling good and looking forward to the busy summer rodeo season.
“I feel like I’m on the back end of it,” she says.
Custer looks ready too. The 2004 palomino son of PESI stallion Frenchmans Guy out of the Dash ta Fame mare Dashing to Fame was trained by Myllymaki and caught Welsh’s eye after a big win at the Springville (Calif.) rodeo in 2012.
“He’s super fast and you’re definitely never going to get by a barrel,” she laughs. “My goal every run is to kick as hard as I can for as far as I can because he is never going to run by . . . he’s super smooth.”
Also a lefty—taking the left barrel first, Custer has been in Welsh’s barn for almost three years and carried her to a memorable qualification to the short round at the 2014 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.
“That was a pretty big day for me,” she remembers. “It was exciting to run against everyone else and be there. I will always remember it and treasure the memory.”
Welsh is making more memories already in 2015. She recently won second at the Redding (Calif.) Rodeo by just one one-hundredth of a second.
Then came her trip around the cloverleaf in Livermore, a rodeo that was born as a fund raiser for the Red Cross during World War I way back in 1918.
Welsh survived through some major talent in the slack but would be tested in the first performance by the same girl that clipped her in Redding, Brittany Kelly. Eventually, her lead would hold for a win worth $2,297. Kelly settled for second with her smoking 17.28.
“I’m still grinning from ear to ear,” says Welsh. “I can’t believe I won first.”
“I don’t know if we took advantage of the top of the ground or he was just anxious to get home,” jokes Welsh. Noting her success in California, where Custer lived with Myllymaki, she adds, “I think he thinks California is his real home.”
Among the first to congratulate her was Myllymaki.
“She texted me before we knew the results and just said ‘awesome!’ She’s one of my idols and I really can’t thank her enough for selling him to me and for helping and supporting me,” says Welsh.
Now Welsh is looking ahead to Reno, another rodeo where she has had success in the past.
“I’m super excited for Reno. It’s a big open pen with no barrels close to the walls,” she laughs. “I’ll go to a few over the Fourth [of July] and just see how far I get.”
For more information on the Livermore Rodeo, visit them on-line at www.livermorerodeo.org.
Courtesy of WPRA