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Addicted to the adrenaline
Janet Cunningham describes it as an addiction.
It started at an early age when she won a few bucks at a local rodeo competition.
From that moment, she was hooked for life.
Competing in barrel racing — a rodeo event where a competitor and their horse attempt to complete a clover-leaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time — Cunningham won $10 at a local rodeo.
“Back in the day, that was a lot of money,” she said with a laugh.
As she progressed in the sport, the prize money kept increasing, to the point that as a young teenager, she could “buy a whole new wardrobe” with the $50 prize money.
“You get to make a little bit of money and that is pretty enticing,” she explained about the allure of the sport.
The rodeo lifestyle was a given for Cunningham and her two siblings, who grew up on a farm in Kamloops.
Their father was a calf-roper — Cunningham said she gave the sport a try but lacked the co-ordination — and she described their mother as “absolutely horse-crazy.”
Before she was even two years old, Cunningham was riding horses, and she owned her first horse at age 8.
She worked her way from competing at junior and Little Britches Rodeo, then on to the high school circuit, the amateur rodeo association, and then finally professionally, with the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
The rodeo circuit takes Cunningham across western Canada, as well as parts of the United States.
Competing in about 40 events a year, Cunningham can be gone for six months at a time.
“There is no down time; sometimes the days are 14, 15, 16 hours long,” said the 49-year-old.
“You really have to sacrifice a lot to get to the level we go at.”
While her kids — a son and daughter — are all grown up now, growing up, it made for some tough times for the family.
Sometimes both kids would attend with their mother, while other times, Cunningham’s daughter would travel with her to a competition, while her son would stay home and take care of the family farm.
But regardless, Cunningham — who also works as a lottery representative for the B.C. Lottery Corporation — can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I keep threatening to quit, and it doesn’t work out that way, I am still going,” she said.
“I think rodeoing is just a little bit of an addiction and it is very hard to give up.
“And if you were to ask any other competitor, they would tell you the same thing.”
Cunningham loves the rush of excitement that takes over her body in the minutes leading up to a competition.
“The two minutes before you get to go out there and make your run, I swear that is what I do it for, the adrenalin rush before you get to go,” she explained. “The rest of it is a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, but those two minutes where you get to make your run, the world is just perfect.
“It is a complete adrenalin rush.”
Despite the sacrifices and injuries — a broken cheekbone, cracked sternum, crushed leg and a knee which made her leg “the size of an elephant” and a couple of concussions — Cunningham just shrugs those off.
“Nothing that would make you quit,” she explained.
This year marks her 25th appearance at the Cloverdale Rodeo — which begins today (Friday) and runs until Sunday — but first since it turned into an invitational event in 2008.
Cunningham, an Aldergrove resident for the past four years, loves the fact she is competing pretty much in her own backyard. Especially since it means she and her Zipper, her running quarterhorse, get to sleep in their own beds at night.
She has tasted success at this event before.
“It’s top-loaded with those really good people,” she said. “I’ve always done really well at Cloverdale, I’ve won a ton of money out of there, but I didn’t have my name in the top five, so I didn’t get invited until this year.”
Someone backed out and Cunningham got the invite to attend and she didn’t give it a second thought.
She said with the level of talent coming to Cloverdale, it’s important to have the right mindset.
“When you get to this level, it’s pretty well all psychological,” she said. “You approach it the same way as you do any other rodeo, you don’t change the game plan – what’s been successful in the past – you don’t change the game plan just because there’s more money added.”
— with files from Kevin Diakiw/Black Press
Above: Janet Cunningham and her horse Zipper love competing at the Cloverdale Rodeo as it allows them to sleep in their own beds at home in Aldergrove.