In any given year, the rodeo road can be a roller coaster for most people. For California cowgirl Megan Champion, 2021 made the standard roller-coaster year look like a ride at the kiddies’ corral at the local fair.
Despite the huge ups and downs, Champion finished 2021 on a high note, storming back from a year of adversity to win the California Circuit Finals Rodeo (CFR) held in Red Bluff on December 30-January 1, 2022.
The Ukiah resident also claimed the California Circuit year-end championship, winning $25,641 in just 10 rodeos in the Golden State, nearly $15,000 more than Reserve Champion Cheyenne Hattesen.
The big win, worth $7,366, money that counts toward the 2022 WPRA World standings, helps erase memories of the difficulties of 2021 and jump starts the new year for Champion as she pursues her ultimate goal of competing at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR).
“We did so good through the winter and were eighth going into the Fourth of July,” Champion said of her season. She’d placed at the 2020 California Circuit Finals Rodeo and won the Brawley (Ca.) Cattle Call Rodeo in the fall and then a decent winter led into an outstanding spring with a win at the Clovis (Ca.) Rodeo and solid placings at the Red Bluff (Ca.) Round-Up and Redding (Ca.) Rodeo.
“Then Katy got hurt,” Champion said, noting the moment the roller coaster stopped being fun as it turned to its long downhill plunge. Katy, registered Tivitosatthegogobar, had carried Champion to the win in Clovis but suffered a season-ending injury just as summer began.
Champion has a superb one-two punch of horsepower, however, and still had Miss Dual Smartee to start the big summer run. Unfortunately, the injury bug hit Champion herself.
“Then I broke my foot,” she said. The injury hit right before the Fourth of July. As she gritted it out, staying on the road, Champion was finally getting well and finding her winning formula again by August only to have Smarty pull her medial muscle, leaving her out for five months.
“I was just getting back, then Smarty got hurt,” Champion said of the 13-year-old daughter of Mister Dual Pep and out of Elans Smartee by Elans Playboy. “Everything was telling me to stay home.”
Turning Things Around
Switching gears, Champion left the Northwest early to hit rescheduled California circuit rodeos, hoping to solidify her position as the standings leader.
“I turned out and came back to the California rodeos, even though they were less added money, to try to secure the circuit. I was so far behind with the other plan I was trying to accomplish.”
Borrowing her daughter Oceana’s mare Wonder Woman (SFW Wonder Woman), Champion scored wins at Ramona and Santa Maria to seal the year-end title before the Finals even began.
“It was a nice finish [to the season] but sure not what I had planned,” she noted.
Meanwhile, thanks to the ongoing COVID pandemic and California restrictions, the California CFR was in transition again. In 2020, the event moved to Northern California to ensure it happened, something that was in doubt in its long-time home in Lancaster, just outside of Los Angeles.
In 2022, the Red Bluff Round-Up committee agreed to host the event again but moved from their huge outdoor arena to the Pauline Davis Pavillon, a small indoor arena at the Tehama County Fairgrounds. They also moved from early October to New Year’s weekend.
Both moves benefitted Champion. The later date allowed both Katy and Smarty time to recoup and rehab from their injuries. And Champion was thrilled with the change in arenas.
“Smarty loves that little pen,” Champion said. Though it had been some time since the pair had run there, they had success in the past during numerous jackpot events.
Smarty had gone to a rehab facility during her recovery and Champion got to get on and begin legging her up just three weeks prior to the circuit finals. They were able to make three jackpot runs to test their timing.
“Two of them were in the 2D and one was in the 1D,” Champion laughed. “I just kept reminding myself, once some of these horses get exposed to rodeos, they just don’t run as hard at jackpots. Smarty definitely is one that needs the adrenaline [of competing in a perf] and it’s just not there at a jackpot.”
With no reservations, Champion and Smarty attacked the first round, blazing through in what would be the rodeo’s fastest time. Her 13.08 second run was .16 seconds ahead of Hattesen to set the tone for the monster comeback.
“I’m so fortunate with my horses,” Champion admitted. “I just let them do their job, try to stay out of the way. The quieter I am, the happier Smarty is.”
With a reverse in order the next day, Champion was last to run, sixth on the ground not 12th thanks to the committee dragging halfway through. Still, she thought the track was a bit heavier, leading to a slower time.
“She still did really good,” she said of the 13.33 second run, good enough for third in the round behind Hattesen’s 13.27.
“The last round was just about keeping the barrels standing,” she said. A consistent 13.29 won second in the round. Tonia Forsberg took top honors on the final night with a time of 13.27 seconds.
“It was packed, not a seat available,” Champion said of the crowd in the new venue. “The committee there is awesome and we’re super thankful that they drug every six runners because it makes a big difference.”
In the average, Champion’s time of 39.70 seconds eclipsed Hattesen’s 39.97 for the win. But thanks to her Reserve finish in the year-end, Hattesen will advance to the NFR Open, formerly known as the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo. The crowning jewel of the circuit system is also moving in 2022, leaving Kissimmee, Florida, for Colorado Springs, Colorado. It will be held in July.
“I’m excited because it’s not in Florida,” Champion joked. She previously swept the year-end and circuit finals average wins in California during her rookie season in 2019. She’d already traveled to Florida in April 2020 for the RNCFR when the event was forced to cancel in the early days of the COVID pandemic.
“I was already there and had to drive all the way home,” she said. She did get to compete when the event was rescheduled to Greeley in September and is looking forward to another chance in 2022.
“Less Is More” Approach to 2022
With the circuit finals money won, Champion is ranked 14th in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World standings. After finishing 23rd her rookie season and 30th in 2021, she’s taking a different approach this time around, planning to just hit the bigger winter stock show rodeos and skip some of the smaller ones.
“It seems like a lot, Denver, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and San Angelo, but it’s way less than I’ve been doing. My horses really like it here in the California Circuit, so we’ll go through the spring run here and make a game plan from there.”
Champion has three daughters, twins Oceana and Sierra, and her youngest Alivia, who is busy with junior high school rodeos now.
“Sometimes we forget we have a life at home,” Champion mused.
“I’m going to be a little more go with the flow, see what happens,” she said. “Less is more and not go as hard. I know we all feel like we’re missing out if we miss a rodeo.”
California Circuit Finals Results
Barrel racing: First round: 1. Megan Champion, 13.08 seconds, $1,842; 2. (tie) Charleen Ornellas and Cheyenne Hattesen, 13.24, $1,151 each; 4. Tonia Forsberg, 13.48, $460. Second round: 1. Cheyenne Hattesen, 13.27 seconds, $1,842; 2. Shelley Holman, 13.28, $1,381; 3. Megan Champion, 13.33, $921; 4. Katie Pascoe, 13.37, $460. Third round: 1. Tonia Forsberg, 13.27 seconds, $1,842; 2. Megan Champion, 13.29, $1,381; 3. Kathy Petska, 13.33, $921; 4. Destri Devenport, 13.35, $460. Average: 1. Megan Champion, 39.70 seconds on three head, $2,762; 2. Cheyenne Hattesen, 39.97, $2,072; 3. Charleen Ornellas, 40.05, $1,381; 4. Tonia Forsberg, 40.16, $691.