Blond curls cascade beneath the brim of her cowgirl hat, and pink lip gloss accentuates her smile. But Sara Akins has more than glamour to qualify her recently acquired title of 2013 Yuma Jaycees Silver Spur Rodeo queen.
Akins has presence, poise and a sense of determination that she exudes through a steady gaze and firm handshake.
She speaks with both confidence and humility as she describes standing with two other pageant contestants in the Silver Spur Rodeo arena on Feb. 9, when it was announced that she had been selected to reign as the this year's queen.
“It was like a dream for me when they called my name because I've (competed) twice before and lost, and so I was very happy.”
Akins began riding and showing horses at age 11 under the instruction of her 4-H teacher, Carolyn Knowlton, who later became her 4-H leader.
Knowlton had a horse called DJ that needed to learn how to lope for an upcoming competition. So Akins got up every day at 5 or 6 a.m. to ride DJ and try to teach her to lope.
About halfway through the period of time leading to the competition, the child's determination paid off. As she loped DJ around a full lap inside the arena, Knowlton came out to present the child with the horse's pedigree papers.
“She gave me my first horse,” Akins says. “I just bawled. Carolyn was so great, and I've been (involved with) horses since.”
Being rodeo queen now may be a glamorous job, but the sparkling jewels in her crown are quite a juxtaposition to the stuff she got on her boots while cleaning a barn in exchange for DJ's board.
“I cleaned 15 or 20 stalls around five times a week, and then I'd ride my horse.”
The owner of the barn and other people taught her a lot about riding, but she eventually developed her own style.
Having been home-schooled since about the sixth grade, the 18-year-old senior who is currently enrolled in online studies says her flexible study schedule has given her time to devote to horsemanship.
Though DJ died in 2008, Akins now has a horse called Deon, and she credits him with helping her win her crown.
One has to wonder if she credits her own determination as well.
She had competed for the teen queen title at age 14 and then again the following year, but lost both times.
It was like having the wind knocked out of her after falling from a horse, and she thought she'd never compete again because she had worked so hard just to lose twice.
“I wondered, when am I ever going to be good enough?”
But she had fallen from her horse many times before and always got back up. So she mustered the courage to pick herself up, dust herself off and get back into the Jaycees Royalty program.
“It was hard. I don't embarrass easily, but to lose for a third time – it would have been hard to be standing in front of hundreds of people.”
She knew that but competed in the pageant anyway because she did not believe she might have to face another defeat alone.
“It's been God by my side. It was a lot of praying, a lot of hard work. I have family and friends who support me as well.”
But this year, her persistence paid off, and her support network got to share in the joy of her victory.
“She worked hard and studied hard to prepare for this, and I couldn't be more proud of her,” says her mother, Barbara Akins.
Contestants had to have knowledge not only of horses and rodeo, but also of current events, Barbara adds.
The competition began in October and included horsemanship, an interview with three judges, dinner with the judges, a two-minute speech on an assigned topic, an exam and an essay. Sara Akins says she was somewhat intimidated by the process, but that years of 4-H participation had prepared her for the competition.
Additionally, her mother had always made sure she was involved in extracurricular activities such as basketball, music, art, church and community volunteerism.
While running for rodeo queen, however, she put some of those activities aside in order to focus on the task at hand – a time-management strategy that helped her meet her goal of serving as rodeo queen.
“One of the things I want to do is to represent Yuma and the Jaycees and promote the sport of rodeo to the best of my ability,” she says. “Just being a contestant gave me a chance to do that, and I love the job.”
During her reign, she will ride, speak and give presentations in local schools, other rodeos and parades. “When I talk to people, I will be talking professionally as a queen.”
After she completes her high school studies, she may either join the Army or complete a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Meanwhile, she's looking for a job. “I'm getting another horse, and they don't feed themselves.”