Mention the sport of rodeo around the Rim country, and one of the first persons who comes to mind is Penny Conway.
Since she was 8-years-old, Conway has been competing in the sport. She comes from a family that has been involved in ranching in the Payson area for almost 130 years. To anyone who will listen, Conway will adamantly expose the virtues of the sport that has long been a part of her family's rich heritage. That history includes two brothers who qualified for the PRCA National Finals.
In 1991, Conway stepped away from her elementary school teaching career to found the Rodeo Education and Children (REACh) program. Through the program, students in 26 states are taught the history and nuances of rodeo.
Sandwiched between her extensive travel to conduct the REACh program in American schools, Conway along with her husband Bill found time to help their son Kyle become a good enough calf and team roper to earn a college scholarship.
With both children raised, Conway decided last year she'd like to take on the challenge of competing on the Professional Women's Rodeo Association circuit.
That effort culminated one week ago at the Cow Town Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas, where Conway won the PWRA team roping championship for headers.
She entered the women's national finals in second place overall and needed a strong showing at Fort Worth to overtake the leader.
"(The championship) came down to the last steer," she said. "For me, it was kind of like the bottom of the ninth (inning) at the World Series."
With local roper Terri James toiling as Conway's heeler, the two roped their final steer in nine seconds flat.
That quick time was just enough to propel Conway past the front runner and earn the Payson roper her first national championship.
As a team at the finals, Conway and James finished second in the first and second go-arounds and fourth in the averages.
The national roping crown, Conway said, represented the realization of a lifelong dream, one that was set aside years ago to focus on raising a family.
For her victory, Conway was awarded prizes that included a custom saddle, gold buckle, a black and gold hat, Justin Ostrich boots and prize money.
The boots will go to her husband, she said "for being the husband of the year, driving me to all these rodeos."
To qualify for the women's national finals, Conway had to finish among the top-15 headers during the 2001 rodeo season. That involved travel to rodeos in Colorado, Wyoming, Texas and several in southern Arizona.
At the national finals award ceremony, Conway received even more laurels when her 4-year-old quarterhorse Zachariah was named the PWRA's Roping Horse of the Year. Since they acquired the horse, Conway and her husband have been the sole trainers of the animal that dazzled rodeo judges with his arena prowess.
How it works
As the header in the roping team, Conway is the first out of the box and has the option of roping the steer around the head and one horn, around the neck or around both horns.
After making the catch, the header dallies, or wraps the tail of her rope around the saddle horn and rides to the left, taking the steer in tow.
The heeler then moves in and tries to rope both hind legs. Catching only one hind leg results in a 5-second penalty.
If the heeler tosses her loop before the header has changed the direction of the steer and the animal is moving forward, a crossfire violation is called and the pair is disqualified.
At the national finals on the crucial last steer the Payson team was to rope, James tossed her loop expertly and caught both hind legs without crossfiring.
Had she not, Conway said, the penalty or disqualification might have been enough to deny her the roping title.