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Erin Downey will be the University of Wyoming's only representative at the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) National Championship Show next month in California.
She just might be the only Alaskan, too.
"She makes us Alaska girls so proud," beams Brittany Waltz, Downey's best friend of 12 years and one of her teammates on the UW equestrian club.
Waltz laughs and adds, "I think there's a lot of people who don't even think we have horses in Alaska. But we do and we know how to ride, too."
A native of The Last Frontier, where dog mushing is the official state sport, Downey
became the first UW rider in four years to qualify for the national finals with a
sterling performance last weekend at the IHSA Zone 7 Championships in Baton Rouge,
Downey, a junior from Anchorage, the largest city in the largest state in the U.S., placed second in the intermediate on the flat class at zones. She will be UW's first contestant at the national show since Michelle Schwope of Lovell and Amy Goodson of Sundance represented the school in 2004.
"It's exciting to represent the University of Wyoming at the national level," says Downey, who was recruited to UW by Waltz, who also hails from Anchorage. "This has been an amazing year for both our equestrian team and me individually. I have met and surpassed many of my goals this season and no matter what happens at nationals, I am incredibly pleased to have made it this far."
Adds UW Coach Kari Randle, "I am just so proud of Erin. She is a tremendous athlete who has worked so hard for this."
UW's other representative at the zone championships, Kristen Erickson, an animal and veterinary science junior from Moorhead, Minn., finished fourth in the advanced walk-trot-canter class and missed qualifying for nationals.
"That was the hardest class of the entire show," says Randle. "She had one bobble and it cost her. But I have every ounce of confidence that if Kristen practices as hard next year as she did before zones that she'll go all the way next year. There are big things in store for her next year."
There won't be a next year for Downey, who came to UW only for the 2007-08 academic year to help Waltz revive the fledgling equestrian club. In the fall, Downey will return to the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) to finish her studies. The credits she has earned at UW will transfer to UAA, which doesn't sponsor an IHSA team.
"I take a lot of pride being an equestrian from Alaska. But being in Wyoming has given me the opportunity to do what I can't in Alaska, where we only have a relatively small show circuit in the summer and no intercollegiate team," Downey says. "It's been a wonderful experience to be able to come down here and compete in real ‘horse country.'"
Says Waltz, the UW team president, "I wish she could stay, but she wants to finish what she started at UAA."
In just a short time, however, Downey has made a significant impact at UW.
In addition to her prowess in the arena, Randle says Downey has set an example for the equestrian club with her positive attitude and fun-loving personality. She also hauled her horse, Macey, from Anchorage to Laramie, a six-day drive covering some 3,100 miles, and provided the horse to all riders at practices.
"She has been absolutely amazing for the team," says Randle, a senior animal science major from Laramie who doubles as the club's volunteer coach. "She has a huge heart, she's very talented, she's an extremely hard worker and she's been so generous to donate her horse to the team."
She adds, "I think we've all learned a lot from Erin."
Downey has displayed another redeeming quality: Toughness. She suffered a cracked rib when she was thrown from a horse at practice on a cold night in March but continued to compete to earn the necessary points to qualify for the zone championships.
"My rib is much better now, but I still can't girth up my horse without standing on something a bit taller to give me more leverage," Downey says. "It still hurts to take deep breaths, but it's not as bad as before. I'm sure that in a couple more weeks, I won't even notice it. Hopefully."
Now that Downey has qualified for the national show, May 9-11 at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, the equestrian club needs financial help to get here there.
The club plans to resume its season-long bake sale in the Wyoming Union, but Randle hopes private donors will come forward to help foot the travel, lodging and entry fee costs. As a club sport, the equestrian club receives only minimal financial aid from UW and mostly pays its own way to events.
"We're very grateful for all the support we've had this year. Everybody has been great," Randle says. "But we just need a little bit more to help get this one girl who has worked so hard to nationals.
"And me, too," she says with a laugh. "I'd sure like to go and coach her."
To lend financial aid to the equestrian club, call Randle at (307) 760-9474 or e-mail email@example.com.
The IHSA, founded in 1967, includes more than 300 member institutions and 6,500 riders across the United States and Canada. For more information, go to the Web site at www.ihsainc.com.