MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is a big weekend coming up in the world of rodeo. At the State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City, it's time for IFR 44, the 44th annual International Finals Rodeo. It's the event that names the top professional riders, ropers and racers of 2013. Among the crowns to be awarded is the title of world's top cowgirl barrel racer. The contestant on track to win that one is just 16 years old. She's a West Virginia high school student.
And as NPR's Allison Keyes tells us, she juggles her education with her passion.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: All that cheering is from the crowd watching the cowgirl barrel rider competition at last week's Salem, Virginia rodeo, the last one before the finals. Megan Yurko is psyched.
MEGAN YURKO: The thrill of it all is awesome.
KEYES: Yurko is small, just 4 feet 9...
YURKO: And a half.
KEYES: And she depends on her 1,200-pound filly, Beea, in the sport where the fastest rider around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern wins.
KARL YURKO: First barrel's the money barrel.
KEYES: Yurko's father, Karl, is a veterinarian and, like his daughter, loves this sport.
YURKO: If the first barrel is good, the rest are going to be simple.
KEYES: But Megan Yurko's life is anything but simple. She's been barrel racing since she was 6 years old. She snowboards. She's on the swim team at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, and she's in school five days a week unless there's a weekend rodeo.
YURKO: I'm normally up at 5:00. I go feed the horses, take care of them, say good morning and all that stuff. And I've got to be at school by 7:30 - 7:30 to 2:00, I'm in school. And when 2:00 rolls around, I go home and I ride, and then I sit down with my tutor and do my homework.
KEYES: Add that to hauling Beea around in a trailer to rodeos. So when does she sleep?
YURKO: Never. You never sleep.
KEYES: But Yurko is making money. As a professional cowgirl barrel racer, she racked up just over 21,000 in winnings for the 2013 season. Are we buying shoes?
YURKO: No. We're buying horse stuff for my horse.
KEYES: That means gas, feed, boarding and entry fees and spa treatments for Beea that Dr. Karl Yurko says help a horse in a sport that's hard on their tendons.
YURKO: We have massage therapy for her. We have acupuncture therapy for her, laser therapy, ice therapy. I think if it's out there to make her feel better, protect her, we're looking at it.
KEYES: While champion riders like Megan Yurko labor to be their best, Bobby Row says cowgirl barrel racing had no standard rules until the 1950s.
BOBBY ROW: We'd hear about this barrel racing - what the heck is a barrel racing?
KEYES: Row is producer of the Salem Stampede Days Kroger Valleydale Rodeo and says the International Professional Rodeo Association didn't recognize cowgirl barrel racing as a world championship event until 1961. He notes that many on the IPRA's board had wives who barrel raced.
ROW: So they had a lot of pull - the wives did, you know, so...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here's Megan Yurko, Wheeling, West Virginia, (unintelligible) and Beea.
KEYES: Finally Megan Yurko and Beea hurtled onto the clumped dirt in the arena for their turn.
YURKO: Come on, Megan.
KEYES: And her time?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 14.9.
KEYES: Megan's dad, Karl Yurko, can hardly breathe.
YURKO: That's really good. That's smoking.
KEYES: But Megan gives all the credit to Beea and says they're going to have one heck of a ride in the finals this weekend in Oklahoma City. If she wins, Megan Yurko will officially be named the IPRA's 2013 world champion cowgirl barrel racer. Allison Keyes, NPR News.