Last summer, Mikayla Joh Almond, representing the South Carolina High School Rodeo Association, clocked a three-run total time of 60.091 seconds to become National High School Finals Rodeo Pole Bending World Champion.
Gillette, Wyoming, local Shay Hough was denied the honor by just a tenth of a second.
And it's that sort of unassuming fraction 17-year-old Madison Story and her 18-year-old mare "Sassy" will have in their sights when they make their maiden appearance against Almond. She topped the SCHSRA All-Around Cowgirl points table this year despite finishing second in poles. And there will be other contenders at the "World's Largest Rodeo," July 15-21, at the Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs, Wyo.
"It's such an accomplishment for us," said Story, a home-schooled Bayfielder about to begin her senior year. "The atmosphere there is completely different. The kids you've been competing with year-round are now your 'team' at nationals, and it's so cool to meet so many different people."
But being a previous National Jr. High School Finals Rodeo qualifier, the Basin High School Rodeo Club member doesn't expect to be completely star-struck at the NHSFR and says that should work in her favor.
"When I went...in junior high, it was completely different; running into that arena in Iowa was crazy, like you were running into the NFR arena!" she recalled, comparing the Iowa State Fairgrounds (2014 and '15 NJHFR site) in Des Moines to Las Vegas, Nevada's famed Thomas & Mack Center.
"My mindset was completely different; I was really excited to go and just experience it!" she continued. "I was so nervous that I wasn't going as fast as I could! But this year I think I have a little more of an advantage, and I hope to completely push my mare as much as I can. She'll give me all she has - I know she will - and I think we'll do great."
Following three successful rides at the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association Finals, totaling 63.606 (21.996-20.859-20.751) seconds, Story finished third in the event average behind only winner Jacobi Larson (62.671) of Fowler High School, and Northeastern Junior College-bound Ellie Bush (63.277) of Elbert High School.
More importantly, Story finished the 2017-18 season tied for fourth in the season-end points race, earning her the trip to southwestern Wyoming. Larson finished atop the table, followed by Boone's Shyanna Reeves and Brush High School's Sydney Odle.
"The pressure was on and everybody was so excited to see how everybody would end up," Story said. "And the girls I was competing against were so happy to see that I did make it, were so supportive. It was cool to see girls I was competing against be so happy for each other, and excited to see each other more at nationals."
Times in the high-19s to low-20s for each out-and-back weave will be the target, and Story believes she and her mount can achieve if they believe.
"My goal for the season was to get a 20-second run - my first 20-second pole run in high-school rodeo, and I happened to do it three times, which was amazing for us," she stated. "My little gray mare is just amazing; as she's getting older, she's just getting better and better. We found our consistency through the season and she has been doing really well, traveling really well, and keeping weight on really well."
"We just found, I guess, the right way to practice, getting faster."
And she knows every increment of a tick could be difference between first place and 50th.
CORNERS WELL AT SPEED: Story noted her horse was originally primed for another timed event, but has been able to translate its close-quarter movements well to pole bending.
"When I first got her she was a barrel horse," she said. "I trained her in poles, and she just happened to 'click' in it. Learning the pattern was a little more complicated, but the turns, she was great at. It's just the 'weaving' pattern that she didn't quite get at first."
"That first year was full of no-times, and her trying to duck in where she wasn't supposed to. But after that we started to be really consistent and competing great!"
Story tied for 17th this year in the CSHSRA barrel-racing standings, and another Pine River Valley rider, Karley Pollock, was close behind in 22nd.