When the grand entry begins Dec. 6 for Round 1 of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone happier or more emotional about the event than barrel racer Mary Walker.
There will be several contestants there competing in their first Wrangler NFRs, but Walker is different. For her, that first ride into the bright lights at the “Super Bowl of Rodeo” will be the culmination of more than 30 years of toiling, of living through a crippling heartbreak and of recovering from a life-changing injury.
There likely will be tears streaming down her face and in the eyes of those in the crowd who know and love her. Because Mary Walker, at 53, will be competing in her first Finals just more than a year after suffering through two of the most tragic events of her life.
On April 23, 2011, the PRCA Gold Card member was faced with every parent’s No. 1 horror – the loss of a child. Her beloved son, Reagon, died in an auto accident at the age of 21, leaving her and husband, 1981 World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron Walker, reeling and mourning.
“You don’t ever think that’ll happen to you, and then when it does happen, it’s just horrible,” Mary Walker said. “It’s the worst nightmare a parent could ever have. If it wasn’t for family and friends, I don’t know if we would have made it through.”
If that wasn’t devastating enough, less than two months later, Walker suffered the worst injury of her long career. While riding her new bay horse Latte, the horse slipped as the two were going around the final barrel at a rodeo in Crosby, Texas, on June 10 and fell hard – on her.
Walker broke her pelvis, her hip in three places, two vertebrae and a pair of toes in the fall and underwent surgery in Houston the next day. Doctors used eight plates and 11 pins to stabilize her hip, and Walker faced a long and daunting rehabilitation process.
In a two-month period, both her heart and body had been broken.
Rather than lie down and wither away, Walker chose to fight and to work to heal both her heart and body. She went through three months of grueling rehab and was confined to a wheelchair for four months.
To say it was a rough time would be the understatement of understatements.
“There were several low points,” she said. “When I had my surgery, they took me off all my rheumatoid arthritis medication. They hadn’t put me back on it, and I had a major setback with my arthritis. At that time, I couldn’t move and Byron was lifting me up and down into a wheelchair, into the bed and everywhere.
“There were times I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to ride again. I’m never going to be able to be a person again.’ You have all those thoughts that run through your head, but you have to talk yourself out of it. You have to say, ‘Hey, I could be worse.’”
Walker leaned on the broad shoulders of Byron, who is a world champion husband in addition to being a world champion bulldogger.
“I don’t know how I made it through it, and I don’t know how (Byron) made it through it,” Walker said. “We took it day by day, and I guess that’s all you can do. We still do. Some days are better than others, and some are not good. You’ve got to just keep yourself picked up.”
Her strong network of family and friends, Dr. Kyle Dickson and a dedicated rehab team also helped Walker get through the ordeal.
“I did know I’d be able to walk again, but if I was going to ride again was up to me. My doctor encouraged me. He said, ‘You’re fixed, but you just have to have faith that you’ll be fine. It’s up to what’s between your ears how you’ll come out of it.’”
Walker completed her rehab – which was specifically designed with the goal of getting her back on a horse in the forefront – in December and set her sights on 2012. While nervous about getting back to competition, Walker got back on the horse – literally – that she’d fallen with the June before.
“The horse kind of encouraged me,” she said. “It was like he was saying, ‘Here I am just standing out here. Are you just going to let me stand here, or are you going to get back on and ride?’”
And ride, she did.
Latte and Walker began clicking, and by mid-May she had a feeling the duo was capable of something great this year.
“I went to Guymon and placed on my first run, and then I came back and won the second round and second in the average,” Walker said. “I said then, ‘You know, I can run with these girls. I have a nice enough horse, and we’ve got to get out there and try and see if it works.’ Gosh, it has!”
Walker watched in amazement and wonder as her name kept climbing up the WPRA ranks week by week.
“I’ve just been creeping and creeping up the ladder,” she said. “You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I can get into the Top 15.’ Then I went to 13th, then to ninth, then to seventh. I won Nampa and won Cheyenne, and the next thing I know, I’m in fourth.
“I look at it every day, because I can’t believe I’m in fourth. And I’m still going. My horse is good and sound and feels good, so I’ll keep going.”
Despite all his exploits, Byron Walker never won “The Daddy of ‘em All,” finishing second in Cheyenne six times. His wife and her 8-year-old horse decided the family had gone long enough without a title at the famed Wyoming rodeo.
Walker and Latte won the first round by two-tenths of a second and claimed the average by six-tenths of a second after winning the final run in 17.20 seconds. Her final-round run almost ended in disaster after Latte tipped the second barrel. The white cylinder teetered nearly halfway down, then resettled itself back in standing position and Walker was the champion and $16,185 richer.
“It was wild,” she said. “After my first run, I knew he’d be good (there) and that he’d be better on his second run. When they called out that time, I just burst into tears. I was like, ‘I just won Cheyenne!’
“What a year! I still get goose bumps and chills just thinking about it and how awesome it was. No words can explain it. It was just awesome.”
Walker firmly believes she wasn’t riding Latte by herself that sunny day in Cheyenne.
“When the second barrel got tipped and went halfway down, but came back up, I said, ‘Thank you Reagon. Thank you,’” Walker said. “(Reagon) hated it, but I used to make him run barrels so he could get all-around points, and he finally said, ‘Mom, I’m not running barrels anymore.’
“So, we laughed, because we said he had to run barrels with me (in Cheyenne). He hates every minute of it, but he’s sitting right there and taking care of me.”
With more than $93,000 in earnings and a top-five ranking, Walker is a lock for this year’s Finals. December just can’t get here fast enough.
“I just can’t wait to get there to that arena and ride in that grand entry,” she said. “People say that, when you ride in that grand entry, then you know you’re there.”
And she won’t be alone.