National High School Finals Rodeo, Lancaster Event Center, Lincoln, Nebraska, July 24, 2021:
“Ladies and gentlemen, starting off today’s barrel racing competition is Florida Reserve State Champion Ava Grayce Sanders, riding Tampa Bay Rey Deal,” the announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
The excited crowd was on its feet cheering as 15-year-old Ava Grayce and her horse “King” flew around the arena as the seconds ticked by, circling a trio of barrels spaced several hundred feet apart. If you blinked twice, you missed it.
Would her time be good enough to win the NHSFR championship? Ava Grayce wouldn’t know until the other 19 competitors had made their final runs. They had come from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico to compete for cash prizes.
“It’s kind of like the Super Bowl for us youth,” Ava Grayce says.
In order to take her mind off what was happening inside the arena, she kept busy behind the scenes. “I had no idea what was going on. I remember King looked at me, I looked at him, and I said, ‘You did so good,’” says Ava Grayce, recalling a tender post-race moment the two shared.
“There I was, back at the stalls tending to my horse, my shirt was untucked, my jeans were stuck in my boots, and my cowboy hat was up on the top of my head when my mom and best friend, Kassidy, came around the corner, looked at me, then smiled and said, ‘You won—you’re the national high school barrel racing champion!’ I couldn’t believe it!