by Katy Whitehouse
Forty-six-year-old Penny Conway, who has been absent from professional rodeo competition for nearly a quarter of a century, is riding high on a comeback that has her ranked No. 1 among the world's top women headers in team-roping competition.
"I slowed down when I had our two children (Katy and Kyle), but I never quit," she said. "I got back into the swing of competition this year, and now I'm winning the world."
Conway, whose primary heeling partner is sixth-ranked Teri James of Payson, is leading second-ranked header Connie Hiatt of Booneville, Calif. by more than $1,000 in the Women's Professional Rodeo Association team-roping circuit.
Although Conway dropped out of professional competition in the late '70s to raise a family with her husband, Tonto Basin rancher Bill Conway, riding, roping and rodeoing still ran strong in her blood.
Her father and grandfather competed professionally, her sister Pam Sproul team ropes, her brother Jay Simon is a one-time National Finals competitor, her brother Mark Simon is a five-time National Finals competitor and Conway's son Kyle is a championship team and calf roper.
As a third-generation rodeo competitor, Conway will compete for the world header title Nov. 2 in the Cowtown Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas the same arena where her father, Milt Simon, competed as a top bulldogger in 1959 during the very first National Finals Rodeo.
"Rodeo has always been a way of life for me," she said. "For me, roping is relaxing. I like to compete, I love horses and I love the sport."
This week, Conway drove to Wyoming, where she will compete in four rodeos before returning to Payson to round out her season Aug. 16 at the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo.
Each time Conway saddles up, she battles severe arthritis pain in her left knee the result of an old riding injury.
"But it's not going to make me quit," she said. "It's just part of the game."
Conway, who founded REACh, a rodeo education and drug resistance program that's taught to more than 200,000 children a year, has always been a fierce competitor.
When she was 8 years old, she entered her first rodeo the Little Britches Rodeo, which was held in a muddy, rain-soaked arena in Colorado. She competed in a barrel race, break-away calf-roping competition and a goat-tail tying event.
"We had to run across the arena for the goat-tail event, and my boots got stuck in the mud," Conway said. "I just pulled my feet loose and picked up my boots on the way back."