When Kayla Nichol joined the Cal Poly Rodeo team as a freshman four years ago, she came in with a larger-than-normal group of classmates looking for direction from a first-year head coach.
It was the next step in a lifetime spent around rodeo. And, Nichol thought, who better to learn from than a former two-time all-around national champion and professional cowboy Ben Londo?
In the four years since, the Cal Poly Rodeo program has continued to build upon a longstanding tradition as one of the oldest college rodeo teams in the country.
The culmination of their efforts — and the many classes who came before them — will be on display in earnest when the 77th annual Poly Royal Rodeo opens at 7 p.m. Friday inside the 11,075-seat Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Nichol credits Londo for bridging the gap with the university to make this week’s transformation possible.
“In the past, I don’t think we had the big backing behind us, and now we have the whole school support,” said Nichol, a 22-year-old senior majoring in agricultural science.
Even for a veteran barrel racer like Nichol, who has twice qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming, the idea of competing in front of classmates, friends and family inside the largest venue in San Luis Obispo is thrilling.
Her main event is usually one of the more popular draws at any rodeo. Barrel racing, a women’s only competition, is known for high speeds, quick turns and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it excitement.
There’s a chance this edition of the Poly Royal Rodeo, which has already sold more in advance seating than previous years, will be on par with the national finals that are held each June inside the 8,395-seat Casper Events Center.
“It’s even going to be more exciting because the people in the crowd we know,” Nichol said. “I’m not sure, having not experienced this rodeo yet, but I’m going to say it’s going to be even a bigger and more excited crowd than you might see at the college finals.”
A Cottonwood native, Nichol said she will graduate in June and plans to pursue her teaching credential at Chico State in the fall. In the meantime, she’s embracing these final few months as a member of the Cal Poly Rodeo team.
When she’s not on campus, Nichol competes regularly in nearby jackpot barrel races, which have a less-stressful and quieter atmosphere than what is commonly associated with rodeo. The payout system is more evenly divided as well, Nichol said, and affords riders an opportunity to season younger horses in a more relaxed environment.
“I go to those almost every weekend,” Nichol said. “I foresee myself doing that my whole life.”
The extra time invested has positioned Nichol to make a run at her third trip to the college finals two months from now.
There might not be a better tune-up for that event than Poly Royal Rodeo.
Spectators will see participants competing in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, team roping and steer wrestling for men; and barrel racing, breakaway roping, goat tying and team roping for women.
The rodeo also will include stunts, clown acts, calf dressing and a country music concert following the conclusion of Saturday night’s competition.
When asked what she’s most looking forward to, Nichol’s answer was simple: the crowd.
“In past years, when it’s been at our arena, we’ve sold out and the crowd there is amazing,” she said. “So, I can’t even imagine what this is going to be like.”
77th Annual Poly Royal Rodeo
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Tickets: Visit www.tickets.calpoly.edu