story by Ruth Nicolaus Dustin Brewer put on his baggies and cleats for the last time Labor Day weekend at his hometown rodeo in Elk […]
Profile: Sawyer Gilbert
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
2021 Breakaway World Champ
When the 2021 World Champion Breakaway Roper was crowned in Las Vegas in December, she wasn’t even old enough to buy a drink or sit at a gaming table.
Nineteen-year-old Sawyer Gilbert sat with her “rowdy” roping friends, while they drank, buying a few rounds for them and having fun alongside them.
But that didn’t bother the Buffalo, S.D. cowgirl a bit.
She grew up on the Gilbert Angus Ranch in the northwest corner of the state, doing chores since she could walk. The daughter of Lloyd and Patty Gilbert, the family had chickens when she was young, so her responsibility was to feed and water them. “Chores and responsibilities with animals have always been a part of my life,” she said. Chores “make you grow up real fast.”
She helped with ranch chores as well, on horseback from a young age.
Sawyer competed in junior high and high school rodeo, winning the breakaway roping at the National Junior High School Finals Rodeo in 2016, and the South Dakota state title as a freshman and sophomore (2017-2018). In high school, she competed not only in the breakaway but in the goat tying, team roping, and the cutting. Breakaway was always her strength but she loves doing the other events.
After high school graduation in 2020, she attended Weatherford (Texas) College for a year on a rodeo scholarship. But she was unsure of a major, and because the breakaway event had exploded on the scene, she decided not to return.
“I didn’t ever really want to be a student,” she said. “That sounds bad, but I never knew what I wanted to do in school.” Because she decided to rodeo full time, she made the decision to not go back. “I knew there were lots of commitments that go with being in school: college rodeos, hours spent on homework. School will always be there, so if I decide to go back, I can, but I don’t have to get it done right now.”
After finishing second in the goat tying for the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s Southwest Region, she knew she’d qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo.
So she turned her attention to the pro rodeo breakaway roping, and didn’t tie another goat till the CNFR.
“I tied three practice goats before the College Finals,” she said. And while in Casper, Wyo., at the Finals, her mind was still on pro rodeo. “I had made it, and I wanted to win, but I was (in Casper) for three days and had to drive to Reno (for the pro rodeo). It was not one of my top priorities.”
By mid-June, Sawyer had missed enough of the rodeo season to be outside the top fifteen breakaway ropers in the world. She hit every possible rodeo she could, trying to climb in.
Then, at the Cheyenne Frontier Days, lightning struck; she won the rodeo, adding over $17,000 to her winnings and moving her into the top five in the world. After that, she never slipped out of the top five again.
Six weeks later, Sawyer won the Pendleton Round-Up.
She went into the National Finals Breakaway Roping Dec. 7-8 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas in second place in the world, behind Shelby Boisjoli. Shelby led the entire Finals, till the eighth round, when she missed her calf. Slowly, Sawyer was catching up in the rounds and when it was all done, Sawyer was the only cowgirl out of the fifteen to not miss a calf; a perfect ten head and an average win.
The tenth round was suspenseful; Sawyer knew she had to catch. “Definitely walking into the tenth round it was a little high intensity,” she said. But Sawyer is good at refocusing the nerves for short rounds and important runs. “At the end of the day, it’s still just one run, just one calf, like any other calf I’ve roped. I just wanted to be strong at the barrier, get out of the barrier. I wasn’t trying to win the round. I had a good calf drawn, and I just knew I needed to get that calf roped.”
Three horses took care of her during the 2021 season.
Hollywood, Roger and Big Enough each had their role for the year.
Hollywood, a sixteen-year-old sorrel mare, was her primary horse for much of the year. “She’s the most well-rounded horse I have,” Sawyer said. “She can do it all. At the normal rodeos over the summer, when you can see where the barrier is, she shines on those setups, because she is so fast and scores so well.” Hollywood took care of most of the NFBR rounds, but when she rared up once and got hot, Sawyer gave Roger a round.
Roger, a paint gelding who is also sixteen, is for the short scores and slower calves. “He quarters and gets the rope broke off faster.” He does well in loud and chaotic atmospheres. “He’s a wired little animal, so he works better under pressure.”
Big Enough is a horse borrowed from Sawyer’s younger brother, Grey, who rides him for high school rodeo in the tie-down and heeling. Big Enough has won horse of the year in South Dakota junior high rodeo; “everyone who swings a leg over him wins money on him,” she said.
Sawyer trained Roger; Linsay Sumpter trained Hollywood.
She doesn’t often cook when she’s on the rodeo road, but if she does, it’s with a can of her grandma’s famous canned beef, “steak in a jar,” as grandma Linda Gilbert calls it. “I could live on that stuff,” she said. “If I could have canned meat every single day of the week and prime rib on Christmas, I could live on that.” It goes along with her, in her trailer, along with baby potatoes and canned corn, and when she needs a quick meal, it all goes into one pot, to be warmed up.
This winter, Sawyer is home in Buffalo, letting her horses rest, working out with weights and cardio, and training new horses, working on a second string. Her mother, a physician’s assistant specializing in sports training, has made workout plans for her, which include plenty of upper body weight lifting.
Sawyer knows herself well enough to know she has a “one-track mind. I can only focus on one thing. I’m 110 percent in or absolutely not at all.”
At the end of her pro rodeo career, she wants her name to be synonymous with breakaway roping. “When you think about breakaway roping,” she said, “you think about Sawyer.” She hopes to have a place in Texas, because of the opportunities to rope in the winter, but Buffalo will always be home.
Sawyer loved the fourteen cowgirls she roped alongside of at the NFBR.
“They were a great group of girls, all for each other and very supportive of each other and willing to help. That goes a long ways in helping the sport progress. Everybody wanted everybody to do well.”
Sawyer placed in five rounds and won the average with a time of 46.3 seconds on ten head.