OAKWOOD – Come late summer, most college-bound students will pack their must-have belongings into their car or a moving van.
Emily Mulcahey will load one of hers into a horse trailer.
Mulcahey, a recent Oakwood High School graduate, is taking her quarter horse, Cody, to Missouri Valley College, which she will attend on a $55,000 rodeo scholarship. She will get about $11,000 a year for five years for tuition.
"This is my dream," the 18-year-old Oakwood resident said of getting to compete in her sport at the collegiate level. "I love everything about it. When you're at the rodeo, it feels like a completely different world."
"We were all very excited for her," said Terry Goodner, Oakwood High School's guidance counselor. "I think this shows students that you can take your skills, whatever they might be, and if you work hard, you can make opportunities for your future."
Throughout high school, Mulcahey competed in barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying through the Illinois and Indiana High School Rodeo Associations, both of which are part of the National High School Rodeo Association. The national association has more than 12,500 members from 39 states, Canada and Australia.
Unlike many of her peers, Mulcahey wasn't raised in a rodeo family. But as a young girl growing up in Homer, she became fascinated with horses.
"When she was 7, her grandpa got her a pony," recalled her mother, Sandra Whalen. They boarded it at Whalen's parents' farm in Royal. "She fell in love. She would collect horses, horse books, watch TV shows. I think she was fascinated by their strength and beauty."
Around seventh grade, Mulcahey, who had moved to Oakwood in the third grade, started showing pleasure horses at local fairs. She got bored and took up barrel racing the next year. In barrel racing, contestants ride horses around barrels in cloverleaf patterns. If they knock down a barrel, five seconds are deducted from their time.
Mulcahey admits she had no real technique when she started. "I would run wildly around the barrels as fast as I could go," she recalled with a laugh.
Since her mother and stepdad, Bill Whalen, had no experience, they hired a trainer for her and later her younger sister, Rachel. Twice a week for about three years in Charleston, trainer Chris Winters instructed her on the correct way to ride, including coming straight off of a barrel instead of making a wide arc and using her reins to lift her steed's nose and keep its shoulder from dropping and possibly hitting a barrel.
The last four years, Mulcahey spent most weekends in the fall and spring competing all over Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. She placed in the top 10 in barrel racing in Illinois her freshman year, in the top 10 in goat tying and poles in Indiana her sophomore year, and in the top five in barrels and poles in Indiana her junior year. Her sophomore year, she was reserve champion in barrel racing in Indiana, and got to compete in nationals. She still doesn't know whether she will qualify for this year's nationals in July.
Mulcahey learned of Missouri Valley, a small liberal arts school, when her friend Cobie Ward of Covington, Ind., joined the team. Ward and her mother sent Ward's coach videotapes of Mulcahey and talked her up.
"When he called, I said, 'You're going to give me how much?'" Mulcahey recalled.
The honors student who graduated third in her class of 53 plans to major in secondary education and minor in biology. Because competitions usually require rodeo team members to be gone on Fridays and Mondays, school will take five years to complete.
Afterward, she'll follow her mother, a kindergarten teacher in Homer, into teaching. As for turning pro, she said, "I don't know if I will or can. I definitely would like to see how far I can take it."