Spokane native and Gonzaga University law student Katherine Merck became the first Miss Rodeo America crowned from Washington state Sunday, but there was no time for celebration.
The top ambassador for the sport of rodeo and Western lifestyle has work to do – a job that will include traveling at least 340 days and covering more than 120,000 miles in the next year as she promotes the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association at rodeos and other events.
Within hours after being crowned, Merck hurried to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the Super Bowl of rodeo, for her first major appearance as Miss Rodeo America 2016 and then sat for a professional photo shoot.
To honor her native state of Washington, Merck wore an emerald green lambskin dress and matching cowboy boots for the coronation – the finale after eight days of competition among the 33 reigning state queens that included horsemanship, a written test of rodeo and equine knowledge, a speech and a fashion show.
“My mind was blank and at peace,” Merck told her friend, Courtney Montgomery, who’s Miss Spokane Interstate Rodeo. Montgomery traveled to Las Vegas with an entourage of “Team Katherine” supporters who wore green buttons and ribbons.
“I knew what was meant to happen would happen,” Merck told Montgomery.
Montgomery and other friends and family were crying for joy as they waited for Merck to meet them backstage at a news conference.
“I knew she could do it,” Montgomery said in a telephone interview. “She did so wonderful.”
Merck was relatively late to the rodeo world.
Raised on Spokane’s South Hill, she didn’t start riding until attending YMCA Camp Reed at age 11 and catching the horse bug. The idea to become a rodeo queen came much later, after attending Cheyenne Frontier Days and hearing rodeo cowboy stories from family friend and horse trainer Eddie Biegler, who won the novice saddle bronc riding at the Calgary Stampede in 1968. She was named 2014 Miss Spokane Interstate Rodeo.
Merck, 25, is postponing law school graduation by a year to fulfill her rodeo dream, a goal she said in previous interviews will help boost her aspiration of assisting farmers and ranchers with estate planning and water rights.
The crown is accompanied by $25,000 in educational scholarships and prizes including a saddle, jewelry and clothes. Merck plans to use the scholarship to attend the University of Washington law school’s Master of Laws in Taxation program.
Merck, who graduated from Lewis and Clark High School, also won Miss Personality, an honor that includes a $2,500 scholarship.
Miss Rodeo Idaho, Dusti Olson of Kuna, was second runner-up behind Miss Rodeo Kansas. Olson also won scholarships for both the Appearance Award and Miss Photogenic.
The top five contestants – from Washington, Idaho, Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma – each answered a question about challenges faced by the rodeo association and possible solutions. Merck supports the recent merger with the Mexican Rodeo Federation to increase the number of contestants, especially bareback riders, and expand the fan base.
During the coronation, the emcees asked questions and joked about the amount of makeup and hairspray used during the week of competition. Unlike in other pageants, contestants do their own hair and makeup.
Merck buys hairspray by the case, uses hair extensions and always has a handy tube of lipstick, yet she is adamant that there is more to a queen than looks, rhinestones and big hair. Horsemanship and knowledge of rodeo are critical to representing the sport, she said.
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