She’s a 19-year-old pro athlete with a world title under her brand new gold belt buckle. With the 2021 National Finals Rodeo in the rearview mirror, we look back to December 7 when breakaway phenom Sawyer Gilbert came from behind to grab first in NFR breakaway. With the win, Gilbert also became the 2021 WPRA World Champion Breakaway Roper.
Shelby Boisjoli, who had battled Gilbert all season for the top spot, was leading the average until she missed her mark in the eighth round, allowing Gilbert to win her first championship. The South Dakota cowgirl won both the world championship and the average title with a combined 46.30 seconds in 10 rounds. Gilbert was the lone competitor to catch all 10.
After it was all over in Vegas - and the rush had subsided - Gilbert went out to a well-earned steak dinner with her family. After that, it was straight to bed.
“It was a lot of fun and such a big honor,” Gilbert says, “It was definitely the ultimate short-round experience, but the adrenaline rush was a lot. I had huge migraines after those adrenaline crashes.”
The adrenaline rush had as much to do with the razor-thin margin between Boisjoli and Gilbert going into the last round as it did with the pacing of the contest. With Boisjoli leading going into the NFR, Gilbert placed in five rounds, sharing first place in the sixth round and also winning fourth once, fifth twice, and sixth once in the other rounds. Her total NFR winnings were almost $20,000, putting her $2,200 ahead after it was all said and done.
Heading into the 10th round, Gilbert knew she just had to rope the last calf.
“They didn’t really announce it,” Gilbert says of how close the race was heading into the last round. “I think a couple of people had figured it out but I didn’t really want to know. I had a fairly good idea, but I knew it was going to be close. The whole year was so close, just back and forth.”
Gilbert didn’t let nerves get in the way.
“I guess I’m weird that way,” she says, laughing. “When I get nervous, I get more intense. I guess it’s a good problem to have.”
Gilbert used her paint horse, Roger, for two rounds. But it was Hollywood, her sorrel mare, who she felt had the right stuff.
“The calves were strong and it was a really big arena,” Gilbert explains. “There was a lot of space to move out there. I wanted to be on the horse that had the most speed and could cow the best. I was getting along really well with Hollywood all week. I decided to stick with her.”
The excitement of this year’s breakaway contest in Vegas was palpable. Gilbert said it felt like there wasn’t an empty seat in the arena.
“A lot of people said it was fun to watch,” she says. “It’s just bang, bang bang. Ten minutes for each round. It goes so fast.”
Following Vegas, Sawyer went back to South Dakota to “take a little break and give her horses some time off.”
The money she earned at the NFR is already spent, she says with a laugh. She bought a new truck last summer and is currently looking to buy a new trailer. Much of the prize cash will be spent on new horses.
“I’m putting all of it toward bettering my future,” Gilbert says.
What a future it will be.