At most state colleges, the sports that come to mind are football, basketball, track and baseball. But in rural Arizona, it’s roping a goat.
Goat tying, barrel racing and breakaway roping are some of the events the athletes at Cochise College compete in throughout the college rodeo season.
Rick and Lynn Smith, who enter their fourth season as head coaches of the rodeo program, say the goal is the same as other sports at the Douglas junior college — compete to be the best.
In Arizona and across the country, many rodeo programs are found at rural colleges. Rick Smith said some exceptions include Montana, Wyoming, Texas and Utah, where rodeo is huge and the larger universities also participate.
“I think a lot of rodeo is where you’re at, and whether there is support for rodeo in general,” he said. “The thing about it is you usually only get to host one rodeo a year. It’s not a revenue-generating sport. You have to have people in the community and in the college that want to have rodeo. But I think it does bring students to the college.”
Georgia Diez is one of four Cochise returnees who made nationals last year. For her, the best aspect to rodeo is the most obvious.
“The winning,” Diez said, laughing.
“She’s won a lot,” Smith said with a smile.
“I’ve won my fair share,” Diez said, still chuckling.
Diez went to the College National Finals Rodeo last year for barrel racing and goat tying. Diez is currently taking her nursing prerequisites while also competing in rodeo.
“I don’t want to be just a participant,” she said about rodeo. “I want to be the best at whatever I’m doing.”
Last season, the women’s team at Cochise won the region, which is made up of schools from Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Diez said that to get to nationals, the team participates in 10 rodeos throughout the season. Athletes earn points with wins, and the top three in each event go on to nationals.
Diez originally got into rodeo when she was 9. As a child, she made her father promise that he would buy her a horse someday, a promise he upheld when the family moved to the Phoenix area. With her first horse and rodeo, it wasn’t always easy.
“The horse I had didn’t listen. He was awful,” Diez said. “He would just run off with me and I would just pull and couldn’t get control of him, but I learned a lot with that horse. He taught me how to ride well and be competitive. I didn’t have the horse that would just do the work for you and be automatic. I had to work at it.”
Flash, the quarter-horse she has now, has been with her for 11 years and easier to work with.
Diez’s success with rodeo has not come without hard work and dedication.
“Between chores, exercising the horses, practicing, hitting the weight room … everything we do factors into how many hours we put in, which is more than 80 a week,” she said.
This work includes maintaining her nutrition as well as the health of her horse.
“It’s not just a sport,” she said. “It’s an entire way of life.”
For Diez, her mindset has to be positive and sharp heading into competition. The mental challenges that come with the sport can be the toughest part.
“That’s one of the draws about it,” she said. “If you go in thinking you’re not going to win, or you go in like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how this is going to go’ then you’re not setting yourself up for success.
“If you go in with an attitude where you believe you can perform to your best abilities and make the fastest time or rope the quickest … if you just have that really positive attitude, then you’re going to have success.”
Diez explained that her first couple of horses were not the easiest to work with and success did not come early for her. However, by keeping this positive attitude, she was able to find success.
“I was always like, ‘I can do it. I know I can do it,’” she said. “So finally, when I got to high school everything just really started coming together.”
Diez’s passion and drive make her a special talent, Rick Smith said. In early February, Smith said, Diez and a couple others practiced team roping at 8 a.m., despite the weather dropping to a freezing 18 degrees.
“They’re not the typical college students. They’re not even typical rodeo athletes,” Smith said. “They’re highly motivated individuals … they’re going to accomplish a lot of things in life just because of their attitude and their competitiveness. As long as I’m around people like that, I’m happy.”
Smith also knows a thing or two about being competitive. At age 5, he saw his two older brothers have success in rodeo and knew he wanted to be just like them. One brother, Bill Smith, was a three-time world champion saddle bronc rider. Rick himself went to National Finals Rodeo six times, also as a saddle bronc rider.
“All my life, all I’ve known is rodeo,” Rick Smith said. “My brothers were my role models and heroes, and I looked up to them from the time I can remember looking up,” he said. “Thank God I was fortunate enough to be able to do that.”
Smith coached and met his wife, Lynn, at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. As an athlete growing up in Wyoming, he saw rodeo as a way for a better, happier life.
“A lot of young people around there would go to the oil field when they were 18 and get a job,” he said. “As I would watch them, usually every day they would be at the bar at night and they would get divorced. It didn’t look like a very good life.
“In my mind, my way out of that situation was rodeo. Rodeo has always been kind of a means to an end for me. And I’ve grown to really respect it, and I’ve been really fortunate to be around so many fine people.”
As a coach, Smith said he doesn’t have to push his athletes.
“They’re their own harshest critic,” he said. “The one thing, you never have to get on them, because they’re going to be 10 times harder on themselves. And I think because I was one of them at one time, and my wife was one of them, when you get the good ones, I think you understand to stay out of their way and let them do what they do.”
As for Diez, her goals are “just to win the region in every event I’m in,” she said. “If you win the region, you’re going to nationals, and so I guess the ultimate goal is to be in the top three in every event, but for me it’s you win or it doesn’t even matter.”
And if there is a lesson to be learned from Diez and this team, it’s this.
“If you work hard at anything, eventually that hard work is going to pay off,” she said.
Kyle Hansen is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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