This year’s Omaha River City Rodeo featured plenty of cowboy champions, but Saturday afternoon, all eyes were turned to the future stars of the sport.
At Saturday’s High School Invitational Champions Challenge Rodeo, the top competitors from Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota and Missouri competed in a fast-paced sudden-death, single-header challenge in 10 events.
The day marked both an opportunity for the participants and a return for the rodeo, which was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The rodeo took place at the CHI Health Center on Friday and Saturday.
Sixty-six high school students competed in the invitational, said River City Rodeo management board member Craig Korkow. The winner of each event was presented with a $1,500 scholarship funded by the event’s sponsors, which for the team roping event meant $1,500 for each member of the winning pair.
“My belief is the youth are tomorrow,” Korkow said. “We’re helping to create the leaders of tomorrow.”
Korkow said the high school invitational has been going on for eight years, and he hopes to continue to grow it in the future.
“When I started this eight years ago, I was giving out $1,000, and now we’ve taken it to $1,500,” he said. “My goal is to get it to $2,000.”
One of the afternoon’s competitors was Jaci Traul, an 18-year-old college freshman from Fort Scott, Kansas, who competes in Missouri.
Traul was in a bad car wreck about 3½ years ago, she said, which made it feel even more special for her to be competing. After the wreck, she spent about two months in and out of surgery and had a tough recovery, she said.
“It took a lot of pushing myself to how far I could go to be healthy, and how bad I wanted to be back,” she said.
Traul competed in breakaway roping and goat tying Saturday.
“I wish I could have done better,” she said. “But for the most part I’m happy.”
Like for many of Saturday’s competitors, rodeo is a family affair for Traul and a tradition that runs deep.
“Rodeo is just kind of that sport that adds into the western lifestyle, and brings in the ranching community and pulls from our heritage,” she said. “It’s something that’s always been really important to me and something I want to succeed at.”