Yurko Is Top-Ranked Cowgirl Barrel Racer

WHEELING – Monday through Thursday, Megan Yurko is your typical high school student – attending classes at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, studying, pondering which college she’ll attend, swimming and snowboarding.

On many Fridays and most weekends, however, she takes on a different persona: that of a small but powerful cowgirl, one who has become an international rodeo champion.

For the 16-year-old Wheeling resident and high school junior, barrel racing at rodeos is not merely a hobby – it’s a profession. And it’s a profession at which Megan’s excelling, recently becoming the world’s top-ranked cowgirl barrel racer through the International Professional Rodeo Association.

Not bad for a girl from Wheeling who stands 4 feet, 10 inches tall.

Megan is a paid professional on the IPRA rodeo circuit and the only West Virginian competing in the association. Her No. 1 ranking in the cowgirl barrel racer category places her above others who have been on the circuit for many years.

Barrel racing isn’t for the faint of heart. Describing his daughter’s profession, Karl Yurko, Megan’s father and a local veterinarian, said barrel racing is essentially a spectator sport during which racers are timed while riding their horses around three barrels spaced in a triangle within a pen. The fastest racers are ranked the highest.

For Megan, holding the world title is a personal accomplishment.

“I don’t believe you have to be better than anyone else,” Megan said. “It’s about you. You have to believe in yourself and your horse. You’re your own obstacle.”

And it’s not just Megan who’s receiving the accolades this year. Her horse, Beea, which is stabled here in Wheeling, was voted by her peer barrel racers as the 2013 IPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year.

It’s an honor that makes Megan proud.

“She’s my best friend,” Megan said of Beea. “I’ve spent so much time with her. I can look in her eyes and know when she’s not feeling good.”

Likewise, Megan believes Beea understands her, as well.

“Beea knows if something’s wrong with me,” she said. “She’s my shoulder to cry on.”

Although she has only been involved with the IPRA for three years, Megan has been riding horses since she was six years old.

“I’ve always been an animal lover,” Megan said, crediting work visits with her father as a youngster to local farms for her love of horses.

She credits another rodeo professional, Amber Mostoller, who “comes from a rodeo family,” with pushing her to get an IPRA membership card.

Megan has had nothing but success since joining the IPRA. In her rookie year, 2011, she qualified for the International Finals Rodeo, considered the “Super Bowl of Rodeo,” by finishing 10th. She improved her ranking to fifth overall last year, and has held the top overall spot for 2013 since the end of May.

As she prepares to attend the international finals next month in Oklahoma City, Yurko realizes her world title is not yet in hand, as the finals provides competitors an opportunity to increase their positions based on performance at the event.

“There’s still money to be won at finals,” Megan said. “Beea and I are going to be ready. We’re not going to go down without a fight.”

Even though she is the youngest in the world standings, Megan has never allowed her age or height to hold her back. In contrast to other racers who grew up in rodeo families knowledgeable of the sport, she is self-taught.

“I never had a trainer,” Megan said. “I just figured it out myself. It came pretty naturally.”

She refers to barrel racing as “the best thing that ever happened” in her life. Once she began rising in the ranks, her family realized the swiftness of her success.

“All of a sudden she’s beating everybody,” Karl Yurko said.

Megan’s mom, Jennifer, said her daughter’s success has led to a busy rodeo travel schedule on the weekends.

“She has two different lives,” Jennifer Yurko said of her daughter’s time spent at school versus rodeos.

In the rodeo world, Megan is a celebrity. She described one instance when a young girl approached her, asking if she was the barrel racer from the rodeo.

“Anybody that’s No. 1 is going to be noticed,” she said. “This year was finally my year for signing autographs.”

With rodeos taking up much of her time, a common schedule for Megan involves leaving for rodeos after school on Thursday, missing school Friday, traveling to more rodeos Saturday and Sunday, then being dropped off at Wheeling Central on Monday morning, just in time for class. Megan also works with a private tutor to keep up with her studies.

The routine does not leave her with much down time, and she admits to not having many school friends. Those she does have, however, realize the hectic schedule is part of her life.

“Most of my friends respect it now,” Megan said.

The commitment to barrel racing is received with a different respect in the rodeo community. As many of Megan’s rodeo friends are homeschooled, the lifestyle difference between her school and rodeo worlds is evident. She enjoys spending time with those who share her passion but recognizes the importance of focus.

“Outside the arena, you’re friends with anybody,” Megan said. “When the rodeo starts, it’s about me and my horse.”

Discussing her barrel racing life, Megan and her family use rodeo terms such as “perf,” “hole” and “slack.” Short for performance, “perf” describes the actual competitions that occur with a viewing audience. “Hole” is the equivalent of place or rank, and “slack” refers to the remaining group of barrel racers who are still allowed to compete after the “perf” is over and the audience has left.

Megan may be the world’s top-ranked barrel racer, but she is still a high school student who has plans for college and career.

“I want to be a nurse in the ER,” she said.

It is very likely that, along with being a rodeo world champion, Megan will check being a nurse off her bucket list.