Hail to the queen

Since about three quarters of you are either from the Northeast or from over seas, and we don’t quite have access to ESPN 2, odds are you’ve never heard of Charmayne James.

Well, Charmayne James retired last week. She retired after winning 11 world championships. Eleven world championships and the Boston Globe didn’t have an article, the New York Times didn’t have an article, and as it turns out, not a single major paper in the country had an article.

But if you’re the kind of person who goes to the National Western Stock Show in Denver every year, where you can check out the going rate for a miniature Hereford and buy bull semen for artificial insemination (don’t ask me how they get it out), you’ve heard of Charmayne James.

Or if you’re the kind of person who goes to Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, the world’s largest rodeo and Western celebration, where you can see cowboys and cowgirls doing just about everything with horses including a race with 16 three-man teams, you’ve heard of Charmayne James.

Because, folks, for the past 20 years, Charmayne James has been women’s professional rodeo.

“She was one of the best ambassadors for the sport,” Guy Clifton, who covers rodeos for the Reno Gazette-Journal and ESPN.com, told me. “Everybody knew who Charmayne James was if you followed rodeo.”

After bursting onto the scene by winning the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) rookie of the year award in 1984, James went on a run of ten consecutive barrel racing world championships, plus the gold medal at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

Her first ten titles were all on her legendary horse Scamper, but when James rode Cruiser to the 2002 world championship, her place in history was solidified.

“Anybody that doubted her abilities, she just proved her abilities by winning with another horse,” Clifton said.

James winning with another horse is like Michael Jordan being told, “Look, Mike, I know you won some rings, but it was probably because you had Scottie Pippen on your team,” and then going out and winning a championship with the Washington Wizards.

Despite the fact that James was at the top of her game, her retirement wasn’t that much of a shock to the rodeo community.

“If she wanted to go hard, she would’ve been right up there again, without a doubt,” Clifton said. “But I’m not really surprised that she wanted to finally settle down. It takes a lot to be on the rodeo circuit year in and year out.”

In a sentiment echoed by everybody in the rodeo business, Clifton told me, “She didn’t have anything else to prove.”

James will get married later this year to her agent and business manager, Tony Garritano. She has sold her life story to New Line Cinema to make a movie about her early days on the barrel racing scene, and the rodeo community hopes it will bring the kind of attention that last year’s “Seabiscuit” brought to horseracing.

“Her relationship with her horse Scamper is like a Western movie; the relationship between a girl and her horse,” Clifton said.

And it’s not like women’s rodeo will die when James’ name isn’t on the entry list. James will continue to breed and train barrel racing horses and hold clinics, and Tim Gentry, the media relations director of the WPRA, told me, “We have a number of up and coming young barrel racing women who are eager to step up and fill her shoes.”

But it may be difficult to promote the sport without a superstar, Steve Schroeder, the public relations director of the Reno, Nev. rodeo, said. “I think it’s tough because for 20 years we’ve been watching Charmayne James — this is an athlete that has helped bring rodeo to the forefront and into our homes,” he said. Schroeder compared James’ domination to Tiger Woods’ control of golf. “If Tiger’s not playing, you’re going to turn it off.”

James was inducted into the Cow Girl Hall of Fame in 1992, but since the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) — the men’s rodeo association — doesn’t have barrel racing as an event, James could only get into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Hall of Fame as a rodeo notable, the same category as long-serving PRCA secretaries. Nominations for this year’s inductees are due Jan. 15, but Anne Bleiker, the PRCA’s public relations coordinator, said no one has nominated James — yet.

In case you were wondering, Scamper was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1996.

Every conversation I had with someone about Charmayne James began with me saying, “I’m pretty clueless about rodeos,” and the person on the other end of the line saying that James “dominated the sport in a way that no one else ever has,” as Gentry put it.

Since the fan bases for rodeo and NASCAR are fairly similar, Schroeder gave me this comparison: “No one will ever get to 200 wins like Richard Petty, and probably no one will ever win 11 barrel racing championships like Charmayne James.”

So when the cowgirls line up for the barrel race at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas this December — the Super Bowl of rodeos that James won a record seven times — and for the first time in their lives they’re able to fight for first instead of second, they’ll be thinking of Charmayne James — the queen of rodeo.