Door Swings Open Wide for Rachael Myllymaki at College NFR
Published in the July 1997 issue of Barrel Horse News
Rodeo’s lil’ darling is back.
Rachael Myllymaki, who achieved Hollywood starlet-like status when she qualified for the National Finals Rodeo at age 11, again shone brightly in the arena spotlight when she captured the women’s barrel racing national championship June 4-8, (1997) at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR).
A sophomore at the University of Montana in Missoula, Myllymaki, now 20, found a deep groove at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Arena in Rapid City, S.D., turning in sub-13 second runs in the three preliminary rounds on the tight coliseum course to set up a triumphant average victory in Sunday’s finals.
Despite a lackluster run of 13.12 seconds on Sunday – the second slowest time among the 12 girls who came back for the short go – Myllymaki still managed to outdistance her nearest adversary by a tenth of second, plus a fraction, in the four-round average with a time of 50.91 seconds.
Close behind was Kachena Cami Fowler, a bright star for the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Fowler, who is a junior psychology major, clocked an aggregate time of 51.03 seconds. Running a close third at 51.06 was Angelia West, a junior majoring in mathematics at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.
Myllymaki’s win followed a drought in national barrel racing titles for the petite blond cowgirl, who was raised in Arlee, Mont. As a teenager at Arlee High School, she captured back-to-back all-around cowgirl honors in the National High School Rodeo Association. But for some reason, the national barrel racing championship kept slipping from her grasp.
“She was always knocking on the door in high school, but something always seemed to block her,” said Rachael’s mom, barrel horse trainer and competitor Judy Myllymaki.
Indeed, when Rachael knocked on the door in 1995, Heather Hutto of Del Rio, Texas, squeezed past to step into the hall of high school rodeo history ahead of Rachael. The space of time that separated the two young women was 36/100ths of a second on three runs, perhaps the narrowest margin in high school rodeo history.
A three-event competitor who also ran poles and roped in the breakaway event in high school, Myllymaki did manage to defend her 1994 national title as high school rodeo’s all-around cowgirl, mainly on the strength of her performance in her specialty event.
Somehow, though, not having that national title in barrel racing seemed like a letdown, a disappointment. Kinda like going to the Olympics as a world class sprinter, winning the team relay gold medal, but finishing second in the 100-meter dash. Sure, you got the gold medal, but you never proved you were the fastest on earth on that day, at that place, against those competitors. For Myllymaki, that always has been the test.
Surely, any high school kid would be overjoyed to win a national title, especially the all-around award which honors versatility as well as excellence. For many, if not most competitors, a high school title of any kind is the high point of a rodeo career. But for Myllymaki, who ran with the top women in pro rodeo at a time when most of her future high school and collegiate challengers were still playing with Barbie dolls, the standard of excellence always has been a little bit higher than that of her peers.
Myllymaki already was earning adult-sized paychecks at 11, when she took home $33,444 in season earnings in the (Women’s Professional Rodeo Association) WPRA. In 1990, the barrel racer finished the year ranked eighth in the world with $42,075, her best ranking in the WPRA world standings. Despite winning more money in 1994 ($57,211), Myllymaki managed only a ninth place finish for the year.
It was a niggling detail, losing that high school title. After all, Myllymaki already had a national title to her credit in WPRA barrel racing, a title she’d earned before ever competing in high school events. That title came with her victory at the 1990 Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Pocatello, Idaho, where she defeated former WPRA world champs Marlene Eddleman and Martha Josey in the sudden-death finals. In addition to that win, Myllymaki had established herself as the gal to beat in the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit, having garnered circuit championships in 1988, 1991-93, and 1995-96.
So, in a sense, the College National Finals Rodeo represented a catharsis for Myllymaki, a chance to reassert herself as the dominant barrel racer of her age and era. Going into the finals, Myllymaki led the nation in National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association barrel racing, but with the sudden-death format at the CNFR, that honor meant little. To gain the kind of recognition she craved, she had to win the CNFR average title and winning required a strategy.
For much of the college rodeo season, Myllymaki had campaigned on a rangy Quarter Horse whose registered name is Easy Does It Doc. Judy, who trained the horse, described him as “a big-run horse.” In other words, Rachael was completely mismatched with the small, tight stadium space of the Rapid City Civic Center. What the situation seemed to require was a stadium horse, one with tremendous bursts of raw speed. Judy had just the horse in mind, a cantankerous little bay mare with the registered name, Rhyma Rebel.
Bred and raised by Calvin Bohleen of Wilsall, Mont., Rhyma Rebel was the kind of horse that Judy would have preferred not to have in her training barn.
“The mare is 15.1 (hands) and weighs 1,100 pounds,” she said. “She was a challenge to train. Had she not belong to Calvin, I probably wouldn’t have gone on to finish her. But Calvin is a good friend, a rancher who has always had a great interest in running horses. I wanted to see that smile on his face.”
Rhyma Rebel’s grandsire on the top side was Bugs Alive In 75, the American Quarter Horse Association’s high-money racing horse in 1975 and an AQHA stakes winner. That bloodline resulted in a temperament quite different from the willing Doc O Dynamite-bred horses that Rachael and her mom prefer to train. Whereas the Doc-bred horses have exceptional mind control, said Judy, Rhyma Rebel was a “temperamental” horse.
“She is the reverse of the Doc O Dynamites – you had to constantly try and get along with this mare,” Judy said. “It was always a mind game with her, and you rally had to bring her confidence level up.”
After finishing the horse, Judy and Bohleen placed the horse with Montana barrel racer Shanda Detton, who fit the horse like an Armani suit. Judy reserved a seat on the horse, just in case there was a need for a hot-blooded speedster with explosive acceleration and the ability to stay upright in a tight course and not block itself coming around a barrel. the Myllymakis decided to call in their chit for the CNFR.
Rapid City had been lucky for Rhyma Rebel; the mare had won the Black Hills Futurity at another Rapid City arena. And, for the first three runs fo the ’97 CNFR, Rhyma Rebel was in championship form.
In the first go-round, Myllymaki and her mare posted a time of 12.75, good for first place, and in the next two rounds, she improved on that time. In the third go, the duo tripped the laser in 12.34 seconds, the second fastest time of the entire competition, losing that round to the hard-charging Amanda Barrett of Bee County College.
But the Myllymakis seemingly winning strategy began to unravel as the final round approached. Rhyma Rebel, languishing in a stall for three days in-between her third run and the finals, had become restless and agitated.
“Being the pistol that she is, she didn’t take the time off well,” said Judy. “She was too confined for too long a period of time. Being stalled, that’s something she is not good with. She is an overactive mare, and three days was about the limit of what she could take.”
But, as Judy said “we were up against it, so we rocked and rolled.”
Going into the finals, Rachael had a half-second advantage over her nearest competitor, and a nearly 2 second advantage over the 12th ranked girl. In other words, she didn’t need an outstanding run to maintain the lead in the average, which was a good thing considering that she earned the second slowest time in a round in which only one competitor tipped a barrel.
For Rachael, the win came as a relief and a vindication. And, she said competing and winning at the college level represented a greater accomplishment than winning in high school.
“People at this level are serious, and everyone here does her best,” she said. “There are a lot of good horses, and the girls know how to win.”
Asked if collegiate competition represented a step down from competing in the professional ranks, Myllymaki took a philosophical point of view.
“College has been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” she said. “Both of my parents have bachelor of arts degrees, and education is an important thing. I had the option of not doing (college). But it has opened up doors and introduce d me to some great friends and people. It’s been a great experience.”