The Stampede became an unshakeable part of my character

In 2010, I saw an ad for the 2011 Calgary Stampede Royalty contest on Facebook, of all places. Up until that point, the Stampede had been the vivid background to my life as I grew up in Calgary, but I never thought that I could actually be a part of it. I watched the parade, the rodeo and the chucks every year with fascination as gritty human and animal athletes performed in front of massive crowds. I saw the barrel racers with their need for speed and the Ranch Girls with their billowing flags. I watched what seemed like hundreds of horses walk by in the Stampede Parade each year and laughed as the road apple crew followed behind. All of this was part of the fabric of life as a Calgary girl, but after deciding to run for 2011 Royalty, the Stampede became an unshakeable part of my character.

Walking into the room for the first contestants meeting in September 2011 was unbelievably intimidating. The current Royal Trio was glamorous, confident and charismatic. The Royalty Committee was generous, but stern when it came to describing the immense responsibility that comes with wearing one of the three Stampede crowns. Some girls walked away from that meeting and out of the contest, but I was hooked.

Since I can remember, I have loved everything about the western lifestyle. I have been enamored with horses, awestruck by the big Alberta sky, and eager to visit the new crop of calves each spring on my grandparents' farm near Stavely. As I grew up, I came to realize that the only place I felt at home was on the back of a horse or out at the stables, looking up at the stars in the evening or listening to the horses graze and whinny. To this day, nothing makes my heart soar like watching a herd of horses gallop through a green field.

But I lived in the city. I was an inner city girl who had friends who loved the mall, movies and boys. I had riding lessons on Friday nights and Saturday mornings as a teenager, and there was no way I was giving up those cherished nights at the barn for a date. When I finally got my horse at the age of 19, I would spend every waking minute at the barn and everyone knew that my horse came first. Living within the city limits, it's hard to find people who can identify with that kind of passion for country life. The one place I found those people was with the Stampede Royalty Committee and my fellow contestants during that first meeting.

As the contest progressed, I got more and more excited for the possibility that I might be a Stampede Queen or Princess. The contest gave me the ability to shine in areas where that I thought I was dull, and it allowed me to live a life that I never thought I would be able to as a city kid. I was finally able to don my cowboy hat, sparkly belt and boots with pride - and that pride showed through when I walked and rode, with my head held high and a massive grin on my face, through to the last phase of the contest. Somehow, I managed to make it to the top 6, the final round of competition. I will always remember standing up on the stage to give my final impromptu speech, riding to my chosen music during the final riding phase, and the giddy smile that kept popping up through every single event. I was having a blast because I was living a dream I hadn't even discovered yet, and it was the Stampede that gave me the chance to unearth it.
Though I was not crowned in 2011, I diligently followed the Royalty through their year of reign and was delighted to discover that I was still eligible to run for 2012 Royalty. Deciding to run again was one of the easiest decisions of my life, and even though I only made it to the semi-finals in the 2012 competition, I do not regret a single second of hair curling, speech practicing or shirt pressing. I had the time of my life, again, during the 2012 competition. Even among all the stomach butterflies and sweaty palms that came with such a prestigious competition (it was the Centennial, after all!) I still couldn't hide that excited grin.

Now, I define a big part of my identity by the fact that I was a finalist for Stampede Royalty. My confidence in all areas of my life has skyrocketed, I wear my country heart on my sleeve, and best of all, I was asked to join the Royalty Committee following the 2012 competition, giving me the opportunity to contribute to the organization that gave me a chance to live the way I wanted to. I am a bona fide, hardworking member of the Stampede volunteer family now, and I couldn't be happier. I practically burst at the seams to tell people I'm a Stampede volunteer, and they hardly bat an eyelash when I wear my sparkly belt and Wranglers to work on casual Fridays. I am considered the resident Stampede expert among friends, family and coworkers, and I couldn't be more proud to take on that role.

Now, the Stampede doesn't just represent my hometown, it represents me. As far as I can tell, there will never again be a time in my life that I won't be involved in the Stampede in some way. As a city kid with a country soul, I can't express how much gratitude I feel towards the Stampede for welcoming me with open arms and giving me a chance to flourish.

My Stampede is the community that I am proud to be a part of.
Thank you!
Rachel Hamilton