SHERIDAN — Wyoming Department of Transportation District 4 Public Relations Specialist Ronda Holwell is no stranger to media. After all, she gives near daily press releases and radio updates on road conditions and incidents throughout Sheridan County.
However, like Superman — whose logo serves as the brand on her horses — Holwell has been living two lives and only recently has begun taking off her mask to the public eye when it comes to her secret identity and the history behind it.
“I have two very separate worlds: WYDOT Ronda and rodeo Ronda,” Holwell said. “And a lot of WYDOT and the public don’t know that the other Ronda exists.”
Between her full-time job at WYDOT, her nearly full-time job of raising and training young horses and young riders and her competing in three to four barrel racing events a week, the self-described Energizer Bunny doesn’t let anything slow her down — not even almost losing her ability to walk, let alone ride a horse.
“I always wanted to be a public speaker but the really good public speakers all have one of two things; a ton of knowledge on a given topic or a major motivating life event, and I had neither,” she said. “But then I had a major event and I didn’t want to talk about it. I had to live with it for a bit first I guess.”
On Aug. 6, 2000, Holwell had an accident that forever changed who she was.
A young college student at the time, a severe 4-wheeler accident resulted in Holwell being life-flighted out of Sheridan.
She received a series of seven major back surgeries including three full fusions.
“The only things that mattered to me at that time were rodeo, basketball and body building; everything was a competition,” she said. “Now I compete but there are more important things in life.”
At the time of the late summer accident, surgeons told Holwell’s mother that it was unlikely she would be recovered enough to return to the University of Wyoming where she was studying communication in time for next spring’s semester. They were wrong.
“I was still competitive enough and I had a positive attitude and nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to do it,” she said. “So I had my accident on a Sunday, surgery on Monday, walked again on Wednesday, left the hospital Friday morning and returned to school for the fall semester.”
Holwell said the accident made her a more patient person, and most importantly shifted her focus on horses from competing to training.
“I always say I have two birthdays in life: the day I was born and the day of my accident, because it changed who I am,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of success, I’ve had a lot of great horses and I have a lot of support but I don’t rodeo full time. I have a full-time job and rodeo is a bonus to life.”
A strong yet modest competitor, Holwell was one of only a handful of local competitors to take part in this week’s Sheridan WYO Rodeo, facing more than 100 other barrel racers in the high caliber competition.
But true to her fashion, even in her home arena the majority of the home crowd attending their beloved rodeo probably didn’t know she was competing as she chose to ride Thursday morning and avoid the pressure.
“I have to say I’m not a good pro-rodeoer,” she said. “Pro rodeos carry a different mindset. I might have had the mindset before the accident but not now.”
She is quick to add that this does not mean she thinks she will lose, as she is fully capable of winning and too positive-minded to think otherwise. On the contrary, it is her positive thinking that sometimes keeps her away from the professional arenas.
“I like to always think positive, and sometimes when you go to a pro rodeo where you only get one run and you do bad it’s hard to think positive,” she said. “You can roll up to a jackpot event with no pressure, and I usually enter two to five horses so you assume you’ll have at least one good run.”
While all pro rodeos have the ability to structure their events in slightly different fashions, many allow the numerous barrel racers to choose their preferred run time slot and then they only get one go at it.
Unlike other events where competitors must qualify for that evening’s main event via a strong run in morning slack, barrel racers performing during slack this week are running their first and final attempt at taking the top spot.
Regardless of the format or level of competition, Holwell says rodeo is in her blood and has been since she was a child.
Raised on a large ranch northeast of Sheridan, the Arvada-Clearmont High School graduate played basketball and rodeo at Sheridan College before transferring to UW.
Her love of the area is matched by her love of horses and her passion for training has carried over to training tomorrow’s riders.
“I teach so many kids, and it’s not just about the actual techniques of rodeo,” she said. “It’s, to me at least, more about the lessons the kid will learn about like while they’re there, like how to treat their parents and how to treat their animals.”
Growing up, there was a rule in Holwell’s family that no matter how a rodeo run went they were required to find at least one nice thing to say about the performance and she feels that positivity is something that is missing from many kids’ experiences these days.
“If you can positively influence a kid’s life in the rodeo world…well, you get to a point in rodeo world where you’re doing well enough that people are always watching and you better figure out how to be a good example,” she said. “Kids need idols in this world and they see everything you do. I have a lot of kids in this world.”
Holwell will learn of her placement Saturday night at the final performance of this year’s Sheridan WYO Rodeo, but regardless of her rank she said plans for the immediate future include doing more pro rodeos “in my not very serious manner,” working with her children and young horses alike and enjoying her interactions with the public on her own two feet as WYDOT Ronda.