This four-time world champion barrel racer has overcome tragedy to triumph in and out of the arena.
When you mention the name Sherry Cervi, most people imagine a tall, slender, blonde-haired woman, flying around the cloverleaf barrel pattern on one of her great horses. However, there’s more to Cervi than barrel racing. For the past four years, she and her husband, 15-time Wrangler National Finals team roper Cory Petska, have spent the summer and fall months pasturing yearling cattle on grasslands in Wisconsin.
Growing up, Cervi and her family split their time between Marana, Arizona, and rural Wisconsin, where her father operates a cranberry marsh his grandfather started in 1890. Cervi’s parents, Mel and Wendy Potter, both NFR qualifiers, supported Cervi and her older sister Jo Lynn’s interest in horses and rodeo.
After graduating from high school, Cervi did a short stint at Central Arizona College and then convinced her father to let her take a year off from school to try to qualify for the NFR. The bargain paid off and she never looked back. She made her first NFR in 1994 at age 19 on Sir Double Delight, aka “Troubles,” and ended up reserve world champion. Since then, she has returned to the NFR 18 times and won four world championships.
She married stock contractor Mike Cervi, Jr. in 1995, and the couple traveled to rodeos together until he died in a plane crash in 2001. Horses, family and friends pulled Cervi through a dark grieving period, and she came back to rodeoing a year-and-a-half-later, strong and determined to make a difference in the barrel racing industry.
In 2008, she held the first Sherry Cervi Youth Championships 5D barrel race, an event she now produces twice a year in Verndale, Minnesota, and Tucson, Arizona, and awards thousands of dollars in scholarships. She and her husband also are raising their own horses and continue to rodeo. This month, Cervi will receive the Western Horseman Women of the West Award during Art of the Cowgirl, held January 18-22 in Queen Creek, Arizona.
“A lot of people think I’m retired, but I want to make the NFR again. I just know what caliber of horse I need, and I don’t go to rodeos just to hear my name being called. I’m excited about some of the young horses I have coming up.”Sherry Cervi
When I was 12, I got my first real barrel horse, “Dudley,” and my [Women’s Professional Rodeo Association] card, and I started rodeoing with my parents. Dudley gave me my first taste of having a real barrel horse, and I was hooked.
I did all the events in high hool rodeo, but I loved barrel racing. Yet, it was the event struggled with the most. There were times I wondered if I was ever going to win a barrel race at any level.
I had always dreamed of running at the NFR, and it’s crazy to think I accomplished it when I was 19. When I won the first round of the NFR that year I was like, “Holy cow, I talked my dad into letting me quit school for a year to see if I could make the NFR and here I am making decent money.” I know that college degree wouldn’t have taught me what I’ve learned the past 25 years on the road.
Mike’s death made me grow up overnight. For a year, I felt like I was in a hole, and I struggled every day to get out of it. My horses, family, friends and God kept me from going down a bad road, mentally.
I didn’t go to a rodeo for a year-and-a-half, but I came back to it in 2003 and entered the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. It brought back a lot of memories, but I ended up winning and that was a big milestone in my life.
Cory was my best friend for a long time and [our relationship] grew from there. He’s a very competitive person like me, and we have similar goals and enjoy living life together.
A decade ago, specialized barrel horse breeding programs weren’t as big as they are now. I feel like my dad was on the ground level of it. He bought “Dinero” [PC Frenchmans Hayday] about 25 years ago as a 2-year-old stud and everyone thought he was crazy. He had a vision and stuck to the bloodlines he believed in, and I really admire him for that.
A year ago, I was pretty vocal that I’d never own a stud, and now we have three: Alone Drifter, by Lone Drifter; MP Dineros Woodpatch, by PC Frenchmans Hayday; and I have half-ownership of MP King George, by Dash Ta Fame and out of “Stingray” [MP Meter My Hay].
I went to the Josey Jr. World Championship Barrel Race whenI was young and had such a great experience that I wanted to do something similar for kids. I’m really passionate about the youth championships and have a great group that helps me. I couldn’t do it without them.
We gave a $5,000 scholarship to a girl from the northwest, and when I called and told her, she said she had two semesters of college left and she didn’t know how she was going to pay for them. You never know the impact you’ll have on a kid’s life, but that’s what the youth championships are about and why I do it. I want to leave the Western industry better.
This article was originally published in the January 2023 issue of Western Horseman.