postheadericon Head injury sidelines Combs’ dreams

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appears in the August edition of Women’s Pro Rodeo Today, the official publication of the WPRA.

With her heart, her spirit and her mind all focused in on the same goal for this season, Liz Combs set out on her summer run chasing her gold buckle dreams and a shot at this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

She knew she had something special in Bogies Lil Skeeter, a 10-year-old gray gelding out of Street Royal by Bogies Bainkus. In fact, Skeeter had carried Combs to the 2011 and 2012 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association barrel racing championships.

“I was just trying to make the NFR,” she said of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the year-end championship that pays out the largest purse in the sport over 10 December nights in Las Vegas. “The thing that has been so frustrating about this is that my horse was finally running good.”

The “this” she’s talking about is the wreck she experienced Sunday, June 23, while saddling Skeeter prior to her scheduled run at the Reno (Nev.) Rodeo. The gelding was spooked and knocked Combs into her trailer. She suffered a fractured skull and will be out of action the remainder of the season.

Liz Combs

Liz Combs

“I hit the back of my head on the trailer, which it split my head open and knocked me out,” Combs said, describing the mishap in matter-of-fact detail. “I don’t know what happened from the time I was knocked out and the time I hit the ground, but the skull fracture happened on my right side and it severed an artery, so I had a pretty significant bleed in my brain.

“Thankfully it was only a two-minute ride in the ambulance to the hospital. They got me into the CT scan, told me what was going on, and thankfully there was a neurosurgeon there who was in surgery, and as soon as he got done with that surgery, he got to me right away.”

The surgeon removed a 5- to 7-centimeter piece of Combs’ skull, cauterized the artery to stop the bleeding and drained the excess. He then replaced that piece of bone and put a plate in to stabilize it.

It sounds horrific, but Combs doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m doing really good,” she said July 12, less than three weeks removed from the accident. “I’ve been really blessed. I have no brain damage, and I’m going to make a complete and full recovery. It’s just going to take some time before I can get back on my horses.”

That’s great news. Sure, it’s frustrating, but that’s the competitor coming out in her, and she’s a big-time competitor. She earned those two college titles while finishing her final two years at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where she spent much of this year. Originally from Eltopia, Wash., Combs attended Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College her first two years.

“I’ve had a couple days where I’ve been really upset,” she said. “I know this is part of God’s plan, and He’s going to use me in some way through this. I’m just trying to stay strong in my faith right now.

“I love rodeo, but it’s not the most important thing in the world. My horse is sound, and he’ll be there next year. Hopefully I can get back on him in January, and we can do good next year.”

Combs and Skeeter finished the 2012 season No. 20 in the ProRodeo World Standings. She’d like to move up at least five spots in 2014 and make up for some lost time.

By mid-July, she had earned more than $16,000 and was in the top 40 in the world. A key part of that came just four days prior to her accident, when Combs and Skeeter rounded the cloverleaf pattern in 17.33 seconds to win the title at Rodeo de Santa Fe (N.M.).

“My horse was really firing hard,” said Combs, who earned $2,147. “I tipped the first barrel and lifted my leg over it. I didn’t know it was still up until I got around the second barrel. He made a really good run.”

That’s an important ingredient in running barrels. Another factor is knowing where to run and why, given that Santa Fe was part of the WPRA’s Qualifying Tour.

“I wasn’t really focused on the Qualifying Tour events,” she said, noting that she’s been traveling with Emily Efurd of Pittsburg, Texas. “We had been in Texas, and we figured we would go over to Santa Fe, then up to Pleasant Grove (Utah), then over to Reno. We stayed in Texas as long as possible for our horses’ sake to keep them fresh.

“He was feeling fresh, and we were ready to get out of Texas. It was a pretty exciting way to start our summer run.”

Sometimes the best plans don’t work out, and detours occur. She admitted that there’s a hunger to compete already, but she’s in no hurry.

“I haven’t lost any of my abilities to do anything,” she said. “It would be silly for me to get back on my horse. The doctor said that I’m going to feel fine in the next few months, but even if I get a minor concussion, it could cause some major problems.

“The doctor said I could be damaged permanently; I don’t want to take a chance on that.”

For the time being, Combs has returned home to Washington, where her parents are caring for her while she recuperates. But she knows she found a lot of success in the Lone Star State. She leaned on her faith when deciding where to transfer to after junior college, and it paid off.

“A friend of mine from up here was going to Sam Houston State, and it caught my interest,” Combs said. “I looked into the school and ended up meeting the rodeo coach, Bubba Miller. That’s why I went, and it turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I’m hoping to be back down in Texas sometime soon.”

She credits the competition and training she received as a key reason for her success. When one competes against the sharpest metal, it’s easier for one to become sharper, too.

“If I’d never gone to Texas, my horse never would’ve reached the potential he has reached,” she said. “It definitely made me push myself and my horse a lot harder.”

Now she’s hoping for God’s healing hands to embrace her over the coming months, to ease her frustrations of being away from the rodeo arena and help her focus on those things that are most important. She knows that’s what it’s going to take to chase her dreams again next year.

Well, that and a sound Skeeter.

“He has a lot of heart, and he really proved that last year,” Combs said. “I almost made the finals last year, but he had some soundness issues then. It took me all winter and all spring to figure it out. I just needed to make some changes in shoeing and get his hocks injected.

“He almost took me to the finals last year when he was hurting, so I’m excited about having him sound. We have a really good connection, and he always tries 100 percent every time he goes into the arena.”

A lot of history in that run

Stacey Grimes had been competing at the West of the Pecos (Texas) Rodeo for more than 25 years, but she’d never won it.

That changed on the final night of this year’s event on June 29, when she and Jetbug circled the pattern in 17.28 seconds to scorch the field – she bettered runner-up Jana Bean by nearly three-tenths of a second.

“I’ve finished second three times,” said Grimes, of Kerrville, Texas. “I had the same horse power last year and won second. This year he was on fire and was ready to win, and thank the good Lord he did.”

Jetbug is a 10-year-old black gelding, and he waited until the last of four performances to make the biggest statement in the event that dubs itself the World’s First Rodeo, established in 1883.

“It took me 130 years to win this buckle,” Grimes said jokingly, referring to the rodeo’s anniversary.

Top of the ground

Fallon Taylor of Whitesboro, Texas, and Sherry Cervi of Marana, Ariz., have been near the top of the world standings much of this season. They made moves in the Qualifying Tour, too.

Taylor rounded the pattern in 15.92 seconds to win in Mandan, N.D.; she earned $3,146. Cervi won $3,978 in Oakley, Utah, by scoring a 15.62.

Laura Kennedy of Quitman, Ark., scored a Qualifying Tour victory during the July 11-13 Heart of the North Rodeo in Spooner, Wis. She rounded the pattern in 17.58 seconds to win $2,884.

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