Hawaiian athletes are right at home at high school rodeo championships

By Tim Korte, AP
Saturday, July 25, 2009

Who says there’s no Aloha at the rodeo?

FARMINGTON, N.M. — They’re more likely to be found on a saddle than a surfboard. Just give them a lasso and watch them go.

The Hawaii team is right at home at this week’s National High School Finals Rodeo in New Mexico, where 1,500 contestants from the United States, Canada and even Australia are tying calves, riding bulls and racing around barrels.

While most people might associate Hawaii with beaches and umbrella drinks, the rodeo athletes from the state want folks to know there are plenty of cowboys and cowgirls in the Land of Aloha.

“No, we don’t surf,” said Maka DeGuair, a roper from Kona. “A lot of people ask us that question.”

Added Marla Loando, also of Kona: “Everybody asks us, ‘How did you get your horses to New Mexico?’ like we paddled a boat to get here. Somebody else asked me, ‘Oh, they have cows in Hawaii?’ I told them, ‘Yeah, they do.’”

The rodeo attracts 7,000 fans, most of them parents and relatives of participants. When the finals were held in Farmington in 2003 and 2004, officials put the economic impact for the San Juan County area at $5.2 million each year.

It’s a new experience for many visitors.

“It’s been a lot of fun, definitely worth the trip,” said saddle bronc rider Cody Carlton, who with his parents made a 36-hour drive from Titusville, Fla. “I like the dry heat compared to the humidity at home.”

The event requires about 450 volunteers, and 1,400 head of livestock are trucked in. Heading into Saturday night’s finals, hotels and RV parks are packed. Organizers say it’s the world’s largest rodeo.

“No one else is insane enough to try to deal with so many things at once,” joked Mike Hausmann, spokesman for the Denver-based national association.

The stands were full Thursday night and there was a steady stream of action — bull riders, bareback riders and athletes in barrel, pole and roping events — at two rodeo arenas, placed in the infield of the SunRay Park racetrack.

In the staging area behind the arenas, hooves clip-clopped as competitors moved to and from a dusty warmup arena while coaches and rodeo officials zoomed around in sputtering golf carts.

The rodeo, which offers $150,000 in scholarships to participants, also has been staged in recent years in Springfield, Ill., and Gillette, Wyo., where it will return for the next two years.

Hawaii team director Richard Kaniho, who raises bucking bulls on the Big Island, participated when the state sent its first team in 1988. He spoke of Hawaii’s long history with cowboys.

They’re called Paniolos on the islands.

Cattle were introduced as a gift from Capt. George Vancouver to Hawaiian king Kamehameha I in 1793. Because the king barred anyone from harming the animals, they roamed free, overpopulated and eventually became a nuisance.

Some 40 years later, Kamehameha III invited Spanish vaqueros from California to show Hawaiians how to manage the herds. The word “Paniolo” is a Hawaiian derivative of the Spanish word, “Espanol.”

“We’ve been punching cows longer than you all here in the West,” Kaniho said.

A measure of Hawaii’s cowboy culture is linked to the Parker Ranch in Waimea on the Big Island. Founded in 1847, it spans 135,000 acres and is among the largest ranches in the United States.

Many of the 20 members of Hawaii’s high school rodeo team come from Waimea, where the Parker Ranch headquarters are located. The squad also has athletes from the islands of Kauai, Maui and Oahu.

So how do they get their horses to New Mexico?

They don’t, at least not this year.

Kaniho said only a few air carriers will transport horses from Hawaii to the West Coast. One competitor shipped her horses last year, but Kaniho said an alternative is to lease New Mexico horses.

Still, that requires the Hawaii athletes to arrive earlier so riders can familiarize themselves with their rides. Kaniho said it’s not a major disadvantage, since some participants from distant states like New York do the same thing.

Tyler Saito of Waimea, the Hawaii champion in boys cutting, had just four days after arriving to prepare with his mount.

“You only get four days to learn how to ride the horse, how to show it,” Saito said. “But you just ride.”

will not be displayed