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Hoping to be the reignin’ rodeo queen

Childhood dream shapes contestant’s life

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Amber Webb would never admit how beautiful she is. When told, she takes the compliment without a trace of pretentiousness.

And she never flaunts the countless hours she spends molding her speech until it's just right, memorizing a bagful of information provided by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) or training her horse.

Ask to look through her scrapbooks, and Amber will smile broadly and say how much she loves rodeo and how deeply she would love to be Miss Rodeo Utah.

Today, Amber begins the first day of her final queenin' competition — "queenin' " being the nickname used by competitors for the various rodeo-queen contests around the state. "I figure this is my last year," she said. It's also her fifth attempt at the Miss Rodeo Utah Queen title, the queen of all competitions. "Fifth time's a charm."

The various competition events for this year's Miss Rodeo Utah pageant are being held in Ogden today through Monday, July 20-24 — horsemanship at the Golden Spike Events Center and the Ogden Stadium, speeches at Ben Lomond Historic Suite Hotel and modeling at the Timbermine Steak House and the David Eccles Conference Center. The winner will be crowned by Gov. Mike Leavitt in Ogden Stadium at 9 p.m. on the 24th of July.

"We're really scared," said her mother, Sonja, of the upcoming pageant.

"No, Mom — we're not scared," said Amber. "We just want to do everything right this time."

A week ago today, Amber sat in her parents' living room in Clinton, surrounded by her queenin' things. The couches were covered with cosmetics and leather dresses, vests and various skirts and blouses hung from doorways and doorknobs. There were several boxes of hats in the center of the room, along with her new hot-pink cowboy boots.

She was deciding what to take to the four-day competition as she pulled herself together from a disappointing finish at last year's state competition. "I'm going to give it 110 percent, my very best, so when I'm 60 years old I'll have no regrets."

Amber is only 23, but she's retiring this year. Though she could compete again, she's not sure she wants to go through it one more time — all queens retire when they're 24.

In the pages of her scrapbooks, there are numerous photos taken by her mother that chronicle Amber's queenin' career so far. "They go way back and are priceless," said Amber of the pictures, which are lovingly framed with ticket stubs, stickers, handwritten notes from fellow queens and programs from each of her competitions.

These pages tell Amber's story; the story of a girl who loved rodeo even when it wasn't in vogue. "I was country when country wasn't cool," she said proudly. And the pages tell the story of a girl who has had to work very hard for each goal she's set for herself along the way. It's like she has been climbing a mountain and is still fighting her way to the summit.

"I was a cheerleader in high school," Amber said. "I tried all through junior high and never made it, and I cried and cried." She recalled how crushed she was each year she was cut but how she kept pushing on. When Amber went to Clearfield High School, she finally got on the squad during her junior year and stayed on until she graduated.

Her love for horses began when she was a toddler. Her father, Paul, remembers the first time he put his daughter on the family mare, Cindy. Paul, a Utah Highway patrolman, can be quite intimidating, but he lets down his guard and eagerly tells the story: Amber was only 3 when he put her in the saddle, with his arm around her, and then led Cindy through the family's farmyard. When it was time to get down, Amber cried and cried.

When she was 5, Amber really started riding. And later, when she was old enough to work, she took on the responsibility of paying for her riding lessons. "I would pay for half and my dad would pay for half," she explained.

From the time she was 8 years old, Amber knew she wanted to be a rodeo queen, and her entire life became focused on this goal. Like cheerleading, queenin' hasn't come easy; every title she has won has forced her to work harder than most.

The queenin' life isn't cheap, and the Webbs had some difficulties in those early years. Sonja, a dance instructor, would find old dance leotards and make them into competition blouses. Then they would paint Amber's boots to match the tops and buy gloves at Deseret Industries and dye them. Same with the cowboy hat.

Eventually earning money on her own, Amber was able to hire a dressmaker, Donna Keyes of Heber. Now Amber's dresses are as extravagant as the other girls', and she easily spends thousands of dollars per competition.

Her favorite is a blush-pink pig-suede dress that drips with fringe and is lined with rhinestones. She glows in it; but then, she glows in all her dresses. This year, her new dress will be fuchsia. "I'm going out with a bang," she said, describing what her last competition gown will look like: The skirt is fitted like an upside-down vase. At the hem there will be flower cut-outs and fringe galore. The matching bolero jacket will also have plenty of fringe, along with rhinestones and stars. "Pink's my queenin' color," Amber said with a chuckle.

Before she bought her palomino, Susie, Amber also didn't have a fancy ride like the other competitors. (Now she has two — Susie for the reining competitions and Geronimo for parades.)

In the beginning, she rode Drift, a bay horse that was like the family pet. The Webbs trained the bay, cleaned her up and, according to Paul, Drift looked as good as any of the other horses.

Amber won her first title on Drift — 1992 Utah Quarter Horse Association queen. She went through a few horses but didn't stop winning until last year's Miss Rodeo Utah pageant. Among her titles over the years: North Davis Junior Queen, Weber County Junior Posse, Cowboy Rodeo Commission Queen, Heber Mountain Valley Rodeo Queen, Miss Rodeo Ogden and Hooper Tomato Days Queen.

But in the 1999 Miss Rodeo Utah pageant, Amber had problems right off. It was the luck of the draw . . . and for Amber, it was a bad draw. The judges asked each contestant to ride another contestant's horse, and Amber got one that wouldn't stand still. "It just went downhill from there." Amber was chosen as third attendant, which was a great disappointment, especially since she had come so much closer the year before. In 1998, Amber made first attendant. "That year I was on cloud nine."

Amber had previously won the 1998 Miss Rodeo Ogden crown, had been on the 10 o'clock news and felt on top of the world. "I got a standing ovation," she said of the Ogden competition. "Even parents of girls who didn't win gave me a standing ovation."

Sonja said that Amber was very focused then, and perhaps she wasn't as focused in 1999. But in her home, a week before the big competition, Amber appeared quietly centered. "I've reworked my speech," Amber said as she stood by the kitchen table and recited the newest version of her queenin' speech about climbing mountains and reaching goals.

The speech was written two years ago by Joanie Robinson, a former Miss Rodeo Utah queen and a Miss Rodeo America runner-up. She's also Amber's coach and helped her act out the feeling of climbing to the top of a mountain, looking out over the valleys and knowing that everything is different from that vantage point. Amber was animated, and it seemed less like a speech than a dramatic monologue, complete with voice fluctuations and blocking.

For the 2000 Miss Legacy Rodeo queen competition on June 23, the speech had been a bit more monotone, and Amber knew that it had hurt her. She won the Legacy second attendant, which stung a bit.

The reworking of the speech and the coaching sessions are all small parts of queenin' preparation. Amber's been training her horse Susie every day and lugging around a bag filled with rodeo and horse trivia that could easily weigh 10 pounds. "I take it everywhere I go," she said. She's been going to the gym three times a week and has taken modeling classes.

Rodeo queens are supposed to be glamorous; they are supposed to know everything there is to know about current events, PRCA rodeo, cowboys, bulls, the other queens and horses — including horse history, biology and training. To help learn all that, Amber would put small strips of paper with questions around her parents' home, on mirrors, doors, kitchen cabinets, her makeup case — everywhere, until she knew the answers backward and forward.

For the past few weeks since the Legacy pageant, Amber's life has been a whirlwind. Not only has she been fulfilling her Legacy attendant duties — riding in parades and rodeos — but she has been taking off work from her job at Davis School's Credit Union to get ready for the Miss Rodeo Utah pageant.

Last Thursday night she was at the end of gathering together her clothes, her six pairs of boots, her four hats, her saddle, her bridle, getting fitted for her new dress, matching her makeup with the dress, having her nails done, making her evening visits to the gym. . . .

Surrounded by dresses, she modeled the outfits she was thinking of wearing. "I'll just take them all and decide when I get there," she finally said. Her mother snapped photos for another scrapbook.

Awhile back, Amber hiked Mount Timpanogos. It was the hardest thing she had ever done, she said. But she didn't stop. And by the end of the 11-hour hike, Amber had done something she had never been able to do before. "I had actually climbed a real, live mountain."

Today, Amber will participate in the first event of her final rodeo competition. She's begun another ascent of another mountain; maybe this time she'll get to the top.

"Have you ever climbed a mountain?" Amber's speech begins. "There's nothing like the view from the top of a mountain."


E-MAIL: lu@desnews.com