While it didn’t result in an individual state title, placing fourth in pole bending upon conclusion of the Idaho High School Finals Rodeo on June 15 was a victory in its own right for Jessi Farr.
The top-four finish at the Bannock County Event Center qualified the Challis cowgirl for the National High School Finals Rodeo for the first time in three years. Since her last trip to nationals as a freshman, Farr tore her ACL twice, missed almost two years of basketball, did home school for a year, competed on Challis High School’s first ever golf team, received a rodeo scholarship from the University of Montana Western and graduated as valedictorian of the Challis class of 2019.
As Farr prepares to compete in Rock Springs, Wyo., this week, she expressed gratitude for being back at the NHSFR and eagerness to improve on her 24th place finish in pole bending from 2016.
“I’m so excited to go,” Farr said by phone. “I made it (to the NHSFR) on the same horse I made it on my freshman year. I ran him forever. He’s been my No 1. I wasn’t sure he really had it left in him to be that good, but he did. It was just so rewarding. My goal is to place in one of the rounds, place top 10 in one of the rounds and make the short go.”
Jessi’s father Jerrod Farr, who is an outfitter as well as the Challis head varsity boys basketball coach, witnessed firsthand how his daughter reached this point. A Challis graduate and former Vikings basketball player himself, Jerrod said she has always had a fierce drive and competitive nature, but her experiences from the last three years have made her more driven and mature.
“She’s definitely very mentally tough, even more so now,” Jerrod said by phone. “She grew up fast when all that happened. Now she handles failure a lot better.”
Two tears four months apart
Farr’s high school sports debut was a notable one.
She was part of a Challis girls basketball team which entered the 1A Division I District 5-6 tournament as the No. 3 seed and went on to win its second consecutive district championship and reach the state third-place game. In rodeo, Farr reached the IHSFR in five events and claimed state runner-up in pole bending to qualify for the NHSFR.
Five games into her sophomore basketball season in a Nov. 29 home game versus West Jefferson, Farr left injured in the fourth quarter. By Challis’s next game two days later versus Salmon, she learned she had torn the ACL in her right knee. She had surgery Dec. 6 and within four months, was eager to rodeo. At a physical test at her doctor’s office, she retore the same ACL.
Having experienced her second ACL tear in four months, Farr was at a crossroads. Her first rodeo was one week away, and her friends had been riding her horses to keep them in shape. The timing of her second ACL repair surgery would likely impact at least one of her sports seasons. She chose to compete through the ACL tear for her sophomore rodeo season and postpone surgery until summer, which meant missing her junior basketball season. She wore a brace and competed in her usual events except for goat tying, which requires cowgirls to jump off their horse.
“I always was really careful,” Farr said. “It didn’t hurt really when I was on my horse. It hurt getting on and off having to bend my knee. It was tough, for sure.”
Jerrod said Jessi’s doctor had informed her that no additional damage could be done if she postponed surgery. While her sophomore season was the only time in her rodeo career that she did not win district all-around cowgirl, she did reach her second consecutive IHSFR and placed seventh in barrel racing, 15th in pole bending and 10th in breakaway roping. Wearing a brace did allow her to compete, but it did present challenges for such an active person.
“Rodeo is probably the toughest sport in the world,” Jerrod said. “Even the toughest hands don’t win all the time. Lots of times through the season just walking around, her leg would just buckle and her leg gave out. It was just extremely hard for her. She couldn’t do all the things she loved to do.”
Following surgery in July 2017, Farr was even more cautious than after her first ACL tear. She credited Jerrod and her brother Scotty for helping and motivating her during her recovery.
“Before I ever did any running or anything like that, I waited six months,” Jessi said. “I wanted to make sure. My older brother helped me with my rehab and pushed me to get stronger.”
Aware that she would miss her entire junior season of basketball, she opted to home school her junior year. She traveled to Arizona rodeos during the winter months and went on to win her first District 1 all-around cowgirl title since her freshman year in the spring, reaching her third consecutive IHSFR. While being home allowed her more time to train for rodeo, she kept up with the workload for her online classes and finished her junior year with a 4.0 grade point average.
“It was definitely different,” Jessi said. “I enjoyed it, but I was glad to go back to school my senior year.”
‘Everything happens for a reason’
While Jessi described herself as an athlete who has never battled nerves before a sporting event, she did feel nervous upon her return to the court last winter after nearly two years away. There was no pain when she played, although she did have to ice her knee every night. She was, however, a much different player than before her surgeries.
“For the first quite a few games, I didn’t trust my knee,” Jessi said. “I didn’t want something to happen again. I definitely didn’t play the same style I used to. I used to be pretty quick and all over the place. As the season went on, I feel like I got into my groove a little more.”
Jerrod, too, noticed how differently she played post-surgery, and he added that the family was on the fence about whether or not it was worth returning for her final season of high school basketball. As was true during her recovery, he and Scotty were there to encourage her.
“She didn’t get to play at the level she wanted to play even as a senior,” Jerrod said. “She’s just so competitive. That’s the hardest thing for her is not being able to compete at the highest level. We just tried to keep her in it mentally, to keep her positive and not dwelling on the mistakes she was making.”
Jessi was one of four seniors for the Vikings, who went 10-13 this season. Growing up in a basketball family and playing since she was 7, Jessi said she likely would have continued playing basketball in college. Her two ACL tears changed that course, but another opportunity came in the form of a rodeo scholarship from Montana Western.
“I think if I wouldn’t have ever gotten hurt in basketball, I think that’s the route I would’ve went,” Jessi said. “But missing so much, my rodeo got stronger.”
She also shared in history this spring upon being recruited by freshman and eventual state medalist Kelli Ann Strand to play for the first ever Challis golf team. The question for Farr, who had played golf before and owned a set of clubs, was if she could balance golf with rodeo. With assurance from the Strands that she could do both, Farr agreed to join the team and was part of a second-place finish for the Challis girls at the 2A District 6 tournament and sixth place finish at the 2A state tournament.
Pulling off the rare rodeo-golf combination, however, required long days. She drove straight home from school every day to tack up her horses, load them into a horse trailer, go to golf practice and then the arena before returning to her family’s 60-acre home around 9 p.m.
“People at the golf course would always laugh at me because I’d pull up to the golf course with the horse trailer,” Farr said with a laugh. “That’s not something you see every day. I live like 15 minutes out of town. I didn’t want to have to make trips back and forth, so I brought them with me.”
The juggling paid off athletically as well as academically. She reached state in both sports and graduated as valedictorian, the latter of which Farr described as especially rewarding upon returning to Challis after a year of home school.
Graduation was also a proud moment for Jerrod, who said his daughter’s work ethic is his highest point of pride.
“She’s had some great mentors around here that have helped her out,” Jerrod said. “She’s not scared of much. She gets up early before school, works on her ball handling or works on her shooting or works on her horses. You don’t see a lot of kids with her kind of drive.”
Jessi said she would not have reached this point without her parents, her brothers and the Dowton family, who 10 years ago sold her the horses she competed on to reach the NHSFR. Reflecting on everything she has been through since 2016, Jessi said the biggest change she sees in herself is better knowledge of how to deal with adversity and trials.
“I came off such a high,” Jessi said. “I had such a great freshman year in basketball and made it to nationals in rodeo. My sophomore year, that happened and it broke my heart. I always believe everything happens for a reason. I never had been one to get in the gym and work out. I started getting into that a lot more. It pushed me to be a lot stronger.”
Jerrod is confident Jessi will leave her mark wherever she lands. In 18 years, he has seen her go from a 5 year-old who declared she wanted to rodeo to a 10-year-old who rode steers to a freshman who set screens on senior boys during basketball open gym to a young adult who accompanied him on hunting trips and helped him with his outfitter business.
“She always demands more of herself than anybody else,” Jerrod said. “She’s had some tough luck, but she’s persevered through all of it.”