WHEELING - A Wheeling teen is barreling forward with her international rodeo legacy.
Fresh from last week's International Professional Rodeo Association finals in Oklahoma City, Megan Yurko, 16, returned home as the 2013 IPRA world champion barrel racer.
Although she entered finals holding the season's top spot, Yurko knew her main competitor could bump her from "first hole" - a rodeo term for rank.
Megan Yurko, 16, of Wheeling is the 2013 International Professional Rodeo Association world champion barrel racer. She claimed the spot at the IPRA finals in Oklahoma City.
"I was definitely worried. It was nerve-wracking," said Yurko, a paid professional on the IPRA rodeo circuit.
Barrel racing, a spectator sport during which racers are timed while riding their horses around three barrels spaced in a triangle within a pen, awards the fastest racers with money. The highest paid are the highest ranked.
During the third round of IPRA finals - there are four rounds total - Yurko and her horse, Beea, ran the race that would win them the championship. With her main competitor scoring well in round two, Yurko knew she had to place in the following round or the chance to defend her dream title was "over."
"I had a lot of adrenaline pumping through me," she said.
With Beea's energy and a 15.5-second race time in the third round, Yurko's focus paid off. The phrase "It was a close race" couldn't have been more accurate. She successfully inched her earnings a mere $11.56 above those of the other top barrel racer.
Yurko didn't place in the fourth round, but it didn't matter. She still maintained the highest rank overall.
"What a feeling ... I don't think it's exactly hit me yet that I'm the 2013 champion. To win that (title), even at 16, that was something I never thought I would've done," Yurko said.
Of course, being young, self-taught in barrel racing and standing 4-feet, 10-inches tall, Yurko is accustomed to defying expectations.
"A lot of people underestimated me in the beginning," she said.
Yurko never doubted Beea, though. The world champion credits her beloved horse with being a loyal barrel racing partner.
"She worked her little tail off," Yurko said of Beea, who was also voted 2013 IPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year by barrel racers. "To get recognition for her was enough for me. Us together ... that's totally awesome. To get that in the same year is something I'll never forget."
The response from family, friends and those at Wheeling Central Catholic High School, where Yurko is a junior, has been immense.
"It's still overwhelming," she said.
Yurko thanks her parents, Karl and Jennifer, as well as her many sponsors for all their suppport.
Moving forward, there's no rest for this world champion. The 2014 IPRA season already began in December.
"It's a continuous cycle," Yurko said.
With a second place finish and $1,200 already under her belt, Yurko's chances to defend her title at next year's finals is off to a good start. Competition doesn't truly pick up until May, however, so she plans to step away from rodeos for a few weeks to prepare Beea's brother, Red Bull, for the work that lies ahead.
For now, Yurko can take some time to enjoy the engraved buckle, saddle, and earnings the IPRA awards to world champions.
She also needs to catch up on homework.