The first impression one gets when meeting Sherry Cervi is that she’s pleasant, personable and conversationally engaging. The second is that she’s very tall. The statuesque blonde is not only a striking fixture in her well-appointed ranch home in the sprawling farming community of Marana, Arizona; she’s also a towering icon for girls and women across the West: one of professional rodeo’s most successful and accomplished barrel-racing athletes. With 16 qualifying trips to the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), three Wrangler NFR average titles and four world championship buckles, time seems to have little effect on her passion and ability to bring home the gold.
Cervi is on her way back to Las Vegas and the 2014 NFR to defend her world championship title, which she handily won in 2013. Not only did Cervi win the coveted gold buckle last December, she broke the average record on 10 runs, eclipsing the mark set by Jill Moody in 2010. The 2013 championship was the fourth gold buckle for the 39-year-old rodeo star and, as icing on the cake, Cervi also won the Ram Truck Top Gun Award—given to the top money winner in a single event—and took home a new and uniquely decaled, heavy-duty Ram trophy truck.
“There was a lot of pressure in the last run in 2013,” remembers the confident Cervi. “I had placed in nine go-rounds so far. I thought, fourteen seconds and this is going to define a year. I was really nervous. I can still remember what I felt last year in the alleyway. It wasn’t the best run. It wasn’t what I had been running through my head all day long. But it was effective and finished out a great year.”
Growing up around horses, Cervi found herself in the saddle at a very young age and, before long, found a passion for barrel racing that would take her from a pony-riding toddler to one of America’s most celebrated rodeo stars. Along the way, Cervi had the good fortune to bond with great horses. Steadfast rodeo fans will recognize the barn names; Dinero and Tinman at the beginning of her professional career, but it was Troubles that brought Cervi to her first NFR in 1994, and who led her to her first world title in 1995.
A horse named Jet Royal Speed (AKA Hawk) however, sent the promising barrel-racing champion into high orbit. At the 1999 NFR Cervi rode Hawk in all 10 rounds, resulting in an astonishing year-end earnings total of $254,369. Cervi secured not only the NFR gold buckle and the WPRA world title, she also impressed the rodeo world by earning more at the finals than that year’s PRCA All-Around Cowboy, Fred Whitfield.
A YEAR OF CHALLENGE
Change was in the air in 2001 when Cervi rode Hawk at the NFR for the final time. Age was an issue for the 16-year-old gelding and he had reached the peak of his athletic career. It was also in 2001 that tragedy struck. The 25-year-old rodeo star lost her husband, Mike Cervi, who was killed in a private plane crash.
“I had never lost somebody close to me and Mike was killed about three weeks after 9/11,” says Cervi. “I remember watching that all go down and those wives who lost their husbands, feeling sorry for them and hoping that I would never have to go through that, and then three weeks later I lost Mike. I think my strong family background and the beliefs I’ve been taught helped me get through that. I don’t know why it happens. But everything happens for a reason and you can let it get to you—crawl in a hole and never come out—or you can move on. It did take me a while to move on. I decided maybe my being able to go on and move forward can help somebody who is going through something in their life know that they’re not alone, and life can go on, which I know is easier said than done.”
THE COMEBACK COWGIRL
Cervi returned to rodeo in 2003 atop MP Meter My Hay (Stingray) a palomino mare she raised from a foal. Although Cervi continued to qualify for the NFR in 2003, 2005 and 2006, she didn’t strike gold again until 2009, when she took the NFR average title aboard Stingray. Cervi was back in 2010 and 2011, and struck gold again with the world title and NFR average in 2013.
“You can hear the announcer as you are running up the alleyway,” says Cervi. “A good run in the Thomas & Mack is thirteen seconds, and I heard him say fourteen seconds. I didn’t know what anybody else [her barrel-racing competitors] had been doing, but I knew I got around the barrels, and I knew I won the average and the world championship.”
Sherry won three rounds and cashed a check in every single round—only the fifth time in PRCA history a barrel racer had accomplished that—and the first since Kristie Peterson back in 1997.
Sherry recently tied the knot with 11-time NFR Team Roping Heeler, Cory Petska, in a ceremony on September 21, and heads back to Vegas as an NFR power couple with even more determination.
COWGIRL sat down with Cervi at her Marana ranch to get a personal look into the mind and heart of America’s top barrel racer.
COWGIRL: What advice can you offer someone who desires to become a successful barrel racer for the long haul?
SHERRY CERVI: For the long haul it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s definitely not going to be easy. Remember your goals and know there’s going to be big bumps in the road. You have to stay focused, keep trying and work hard. I truly believe if you work hard it will pay off in the end.
CG: What was it like the first time you competed in front of tens of thousands of rodeo fans in the Thomas and Mack?
SC: It was definitely a big adrenaline rush. This is going to be my seventeenth time there and it’s still an amazing feeling. I still get that adrenaline rush. You have to focus on what you are supposed to do and not worry about how many people are watching, but you can definitely hear the people in Las Vegas.
CG: What makes a great barrel racer?
SC: I think what makes a great barrel racer is a great horse. I would not be where I am in my career without great horses. I’ve made it to the finals on five different horses. You can be a good rider and a good competitor and have all the skills, but you have to have that horse to get you to that point.
CG: What makes a great barrel horse?
SC:I think your horse has to have a lot of heart. They’ve got to be able to compete under a lot of different circumstances. Rodeo doesn’t care about the weather; rain or shine they’re going to go on. [The horses] have to be able to handle the pressure, all types of ground, all different sizes of patterns and they’ve got to like their job. Those horses that got me gold buckles all had a lot of heart and loved their job. They had different styles, but knew their job, loved it and gave me 110 percent every time.
CG: Which was your favorite horse?
SC: It’s like picking your favorite kid. You just don’t do it. They all had their unique qualities that made them great. Stingray may be just a little more special because my mom and dad raised her. We stand her dad [PC Frenchmans Hayday] as a stud and I got to see her be born and go through all the stages to get her to this point, but I love all of them.
CG: What is the singular achievement in your professional life that is most important to you?
SC: I don’t know that it was my achievement, but in 2011 Stingray split the AQHA Horse of the Year and that is one of the most important awards. They gave it to me, but she won. It’s voted by your peers and your competitors and that’s very dear to me.
Just recently I was awarded the Tad Lucas Memorial Award [by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, awarded to women who have exhibited extraordinary characteristics while upholding and promoting our great Western heritage]. I am very honored to have received that.
CG: What is the singular achievement in your personal life that is most important to you?
SC:I hope that I am giving back to the Western industry. I’ve started a youth barrel race in California and I would like to branch out and do more across the United States. The Western industry has been amazing to me. I don’t know that I’m there yet. I feel like I still have some stuff to accomplish personally to give back and help the future of our sport.
CG: Who is your hero?
SC: My parents. They are very influential in my career. They gave me the opportunity to do something that I dreamed about. They believed in me and still do. I feel very fortunate to have parents who supported me like they did when I was younger.
CG: Tell me about your horse program here in Marana.
SC: My parents have a breeding program here in Marana and they stand three studs. We have our own brood mares but we also breed to outside mares. My dad, about fifteen years ago, got a bunch of mares and some studs and he believes in his bloodlines and believes in what they can do inside the arena and in different disciplines. My sister and her husband run the breeding program and I get to ride some colts. It’s very rewarding when you get a colt like Stingray and you go through everything to get him to the point to where you are running down the alley of the Thomas and Mack, and then you win two gold buckles on them. It’s pretty cool.
CG: What is the best thing about traveling in your living quarters trailer?
CG: What’s the worst thing about traveling in your living quarters trailer?
SC: Having to drive.
CG: Do you have an absolute favorite, must-stop place when on the road?
SC: My go-to place is definitely Starbucks. I drink either their Chai tea latte or green tea lemonade.
CG: What is your favorite movie?
SC: That’s hard. I love the true stories. The motivational kind…there’s something at the end. I could lose myself for two hours and not think about anything except for the movie. I love going to the movies.
CG: Tell me about your fashion style and clothing line.
SC: My clothing line is from Resistol. It’s mostly Western shirts because that’s what I have to wear most of the time. It’s kind of new and I am very excited about the line, making it bigger and getting it out there more.
CG: When not competing, what do you do in your spare time?
SC: My horses are my hobbies. I ride almost every single day. There are always colts to ride. There’s always something for me to do at the barn. If I’m not going to ride, you will probably find me in a mall. I love shopping!