YSU cheerleader wows in rodeo

Submitted photo Cheering on Youngstown State University teams from the sidelines is sophomore Alexandria Wonner. Growing up on a farm, she was no stranger to livestock, and now competes in amateur rodeos.

When not studying primary education at Youngstown State University, walking in the homecoming court, working as a restaurant server or sitting as a vice president of YSU’s Delta Zeta sorority, sophomore Alexandria Wonner participates in an unlikely pairing of athletics — college cheerleading and amateur rodeo.

Wonner said she grew up “on a family farm in the middle of nowhere in Petersburg, Ohio,” with her parents and four younger brothers. Her upbringing as the eldest sibling and a farmhand made her independent and strong.

“Growing up with four younger brothers, someone needs to take care of all of them, so I kind of helped out a lot there,” she said.

She said she was inspired to take up cheerleading at YSU by her high school coach, who was also a Penguin cheerleader in her day.

At first, Wonner was worried.

“I was like, I don’t know, what if I can’t cut it,” she said. “But then I did try out and I fell in love with it.”

In high school, Wonner said she tried to stay active, playing soccer and running track, and of course, as a cheerleader.

And then, as if going to high school and working on the farm weren’t enough, Wonner decided she wanted to add rodeo to her resume.

Her mother is a kindergarten teacher, and one of her co-workers is married to a rodeo judge who encouraged the Wonner family to check out the rodeo scene.

“After that, we all started getting a little more into it,” Wonner said.

Wonner began competing in rodeos as a freshman in high school, but her origin story as a rodeo competitor might appear counterintuitive to some.

“I broke my ankle running track during my eighth-grade summer, and I was tired of sitting around doing nothing. So, I was like, a horse has four legs, why can’t it take me around? The rest is history, really,” she said.

Wonner has competed in enough rodeos that it’s difficult for her to keep track of them all.

“We’ve competed all over Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Oklahoma,” she said. Wonner was also a Rodeo Queen for the 2020-21 season.

While the combination of cheerleading, with its smiles and gymnastics, and rodeo, with its rough and dangerous riding, might appear opposites, Wonner’s take on the two sports is balanced. “With rodeo it’s more of an individual sport and with cheer, it is more of a team aspect,” she said.

In rodeo, Wonner competes in barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying.

Barrel racing is a sport in which a rider steers a horse in a clover leaf pattern, or a turn around three barrels each, at full gallop. The fastest rider to complete the turns is the winner.

“It’s a challenge, that’s for sure,” Wonner said.

Pole bending is similar, except the poles are planted in a straight line in the middle of the rodeo ring. The competitor rides a horse at full gallop, winding around each pole like an Olympic skier running a downhill slalom.

Wonner described it this way, “Six poles, kind of in a straight line; run down as fast as you can, weave in, weave out; and then run back.”

Goat tying is similar to a wrestling match with a farm animal. The competitor rides a horse, jumps off, takes the goat to the ground and ties three of its legs together.

“And with that one you are running full-fledged down the arena, dismounting while your horse is still running, going up to the goat and tying the legs together,” she said.

The fastest goat tier wins. The goat is not generally injured and is set free right away.

Wonner won her high school’s goat-tying championship two years running.

“My dad has been my backbone for all that,” Wonner said, adding they attend events together.

“It was a lot of bonding going together, just the two of us, getting to spend our time together,” she said.

Rodeo also has taken root in her family in other ways. Two of her brothers, twins, raise bucking bulls, about 30 that will be used in competitive bull riding, she said.

For Wonner, however, the animal that can weigh 1,500 pounds or more is just another participant.

“It’s interesting to see them because they’re really friendly, but once, like, say a football player puts their helmet on and that means they are ready to play, a bull has a flank strap — that’s a really soft rope — as soon as that’s tied on, they know that it is time to do their job,” she said.

“Everybody’s like, bulls are really scary, but they’re not. They just know when to do their job,” she said.

As a YSU cheerleader, Wonner said she has a “blast.”

“I have never regretted a single day. My teammates have been incredible. Yes, there are challenges with injuries every now and then, but I love smiling and getting to see the fans, and I think they’ve really noted who I am as a person,” she said.

Wonner is on track to graduate from YSU in the spring of 2026. After that, she hopes to teach grade school and talk about her rodeo experiences with her students.

For now, she is happy with her busy life. “I still have a couple more years to cheer and do what I love there.”

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