Tragedy to Triumph
Two-time world champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi has found the strength to overcome some of life’s toughest challenges.
With a floppy hat on her head and stick horse in hand, a young Sherry Cervi raced around a miniature version of a cloverleaf pattern set up in front of her parents’ home. She was on foot and on pavement, but to the little blonde girl this run was the real deal. So when she tipped a bucket, she just couldn’t help but pout.
Even then, Sherry did not like to lose.
More than two decades later, a photo taken of Sherry’s stick-horse race still hangs on her parents’ fridge, and far be it from her father, Mel Potter, to contain a chuckle when he thinks of it.
“Whatever she did, she really tried to do it well,” he says. “She was pretty mad about knocking that barrel over. She’s knocked a lot of them over since, but she doesn’t cry like that any more.”
Given the success that Sherry has had in her 15-year career, she has little reason to. As an 11-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier and two-time world champion, the statuesque barrel racer is one of the most well-known and well-respected in the industry.
But it’s been a long run to get there.
As a kid, Sherry succeeded in just about every rodeo event she tried, except the one she loved—barrel racing. She’d spend hours in the arena, riding until the sun set, striving to be better. She struggled to find a mount she really clicked with, and even her best horse wasn’t good enough. In the first six months she tried to go pro, she won only $10,000. But the harder things got, the more determined she became.
Sherry struck success in 1994, making it to the NFR. A year later, she won her first world championship; four years after that, she picked up her second. Then, in 2001, her life was shattered by the sudden death of her husband.
With the same determination that she hinged her career on, she pulled herself from the devastation and put herself back into the arena.
Nothing keeps Sherry down for long.
Sherry Cervi grew up on her parents’ ranch in Marana, Arizona, a small town off a cactus-lined highway between Phoenix and Tucson. Besides a stint in Midland, Texas, Sherry has lived in Marana her entire life. Currently, she lives only a block from her childhood home, in a ranch-style house off a strip of dirt road.
Her home is a sanctuary. She loves how the metal roof clinks when it rains. She loves that she can see the sky from her shower. She loves that she finally has a closet (almost) large enough for all of her clothes, a comfy couch where she can cuddle with her French Bulldog, Frannie, and a backyard of plants, which she calls her “therapy.”
Along the light green walls in her family room hang dozens of bits, a collection put together by her late husband, Mike Cervi Jr. She used to have pictures of Mike hanging as well, but has since put most of them away. He’s still in the house, however, and still in Sherry’s heart.
It was strange becoming a widow at 26 years old, she says. Mike has now been gone for seven years. They were married for six.
Sherry met Mike at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, through friends who left the couple to chat on the back of the bucking chutes during a Willie Nelson concert. They dated long-distance for several months, meeting up at rodeos across the country. She was 19 at the time, the first year she qualified for the NFR.
“She was my kind of woman,” says Mike’s mother, DeAnne Garibaldi, recalling the first time she met Sherry. “She was her own person, real forthright, but kind of shy. She had a lot of determination. I saw a lot of my young self in her.”
Sherry bought her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association card at age 12 and started competing that year. As she got older, rodeoing became harder. With a 5-foot-10-inch frame, she excelled at basketball, but she couldn’t play with her high school team if she missed practice. With little daylight left after practice, she’d race home, climb on a horse and ride until it was too dark to see.
On many weekends, Sherry would play a basketball game on Friday night, drive all night with her folks to a rodeo, and compete on Saturday morning.
“Her mom was pretty well that way—kind of a workaholic,” says Sherry’s father. “I think that’s probably where Sherry got that determination.”
While she excelled at goat tying (as evidenced by a roomful of championship saddles at her parents’ home), and team roping (her father still praises her “natural heel loop”), she struggled to become a great barrel racer. Several of her horses died, and finding a replacement was a long process.
In the fall of 1993, she enrolled at Central Arizona College, in Coolidge, to compete on the rodeo team. She rode in professional rodeos on the side, but wasn’t making much progress. The following winter she struck a bargain with her dad: She would stay in school if she could quit the team and focus on a professional career.
“It didn’t do any good,” Sherry says. “I won about $10,000 from January to June. It was very frustrating because I had goals I wanted to accomplish, and things weren’t going my way.”
But she didn’t quit. She didn’t even consider it.
That summer, Sherry went with her parents to Wisconsin to work cattle and 400 acres of cranberry bogs. The Potters sell their cranberries to the juice company Ocean Spray, making them a part owner of the company. It was that same summer that Sherry bought her break, a gray gelding named Sir Double Delight, better known as “Troubles.” Almost immediately, she began winning.
A few months later, Sherry bought Jet Royal Speed, nicknamed “Hawk.” That year, she qualified for the NFR. The following year, 1995, she married Mike, qualified for the NFR and won the world championship. In 1999, she was at the peak of her career, coming into the NFR with a $50,000 lead, winning the world championship, and breaking records for the highest single-year earnings and most money won prior to the NFR.
By 2001, the 25-year-old was ready to slow down. Mike was pursuing several business ventures, and the couple was slowly moving to Arizona from their home in Midland, Texas. With a big win at the ProRodeo Tour Finale in Las Vegas, Nevada, Sherry could afford to slow her summer rodeo plans and spend more time with Mike. It was the last summer they spent together. Shortly after Sherry’s 26th birthday, 30-year-old Mike was killed in a private plane crash in Wisconsin.
“I was going along thinking, ‘I’ve got it good, everything is working out, I’m going to be taken care of,’ ” she says. “And when he passed away, my whole world came crashing down.”
Sherry rode in the NFR that year but doesn’t remember much of it. The following year and a half is still nothing but a blur.
“I kept telling myself I needed to go to the NFR—that at one point in my life it had been just a dream, and I needed to be appreciative of making it,” Sherry says. “But I shouldn’t have been there. It was only three months after he passed away, and I was just going through the motions to try to get through it.”
In 2002, she quit rodeoing and wasn’t sure if she’d ever return, wasn’t sure what she was going to do the next day. She stayed close to home and worked with some of her parents’ horses, occasionally entering a futurity or local jackpot. She was unsure of herself, of her future, of her ability to compete and ride.
But the horses forced her to move forward.
“You can’t ignore them,” Sherry says. “They still have to be taken care of, they have to be ridden, they have to be taken places to get better. I wanted to be in my shell, but they really helped me get out there, ride, and continue to go places.”
In 2003, she entered the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.
“I remember walking down the alley and she was riding Tin Man,” DeAnne says. “She said to me, ‘I don’t know if I’m mentally strong enough.’ And I said, ‘Yes, you are, honey. You are.’ It really takes such mental strength.”
Focused, Sherry made her run and won. That year, she made the NFR for the ninth time.
“That was really cool, to come back and make it again,” she says. “But of everything I’ve won, San Antonio is the most memorable and most cherished win I have. When you mentally want to hit bottom and you have a big win like that—it was what I needed.”
“She’s darn sure worked at it very hard,” says her father. “She’s kind of a perfectionist. She isn’t satisfied with just doing it halfway.”
Because of that mindset, Sherry’s biggest competition is often herself. She isn’t fazed by records or winnings, and doesn’t watch other competitors run, Mel says. Instead, her focus is internal.
“Whenever she accomplishes a goal, she’s got another one set right after that’s tougher,” he says.
Though her rodeo career hasn’t settled—since 2003, she’s qualified for the NFR twice and won several tour finale championships, among other winnings—next on her to-do list is an NFR qualification with a born-and-bred Potter Ranch horse. She’s hoping that horse will be 7-year-old MP Meter My Hay, aka “Stingray,” who is by their Palomino stallion PC Frenchmans Hayday (“Dinero”) and out of Miss Meter Jet, a sister to Hawk. She rodeoed on Stingray in 2008 and says the horse “did well, but next year I’m hoping we’ll do a little better.”
“I put the pressure on myself,” Sherry admits. “I’m a very competitive person and I want to do the best I can. Sometimes doing the best I can isn’t winning first, but I still want to do my best.”
Melissa Cassutt is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.