Robert Appel and Aimee Leigh Monek might be the most talented local high school athletes that no one knows about.
Appel, a junior at University School, and Monek, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas, are competing this week in the Florida High School Rodeo Association state championship at the Town of Davie Arena at the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds.
If they do well, they can both advance to the National High School Championships in July in Wyoming.
"My friends, not a lot of them know much about the rodeo," said Monek, 17, of Davie, who will attend the University of Florida in the fall. "I have to explain it at a third grade level, but then they get interested."
Appel, 17, of Hollywood, said that when he tells schoolmates that he competes in tie-down roping and team roping, their reaction is "usually surprise and then acceptance."
Rodeo is a Florida and South Florida tradition. At 70-plus years, Davie's rodeo arena is the oldest in the state. And as rodeo grounds namesake Ron Bergeron, who still competes in team roping, likes to point out, the first cowboys in the United States were in Florida because the state was the first to have cows.
Appel and Monek have been around horses for most of their lives. Appel, whose father died when he was a toddler, said his stepfather Greg Claire introduced him to roping as a boy and he has been competing in rodeo events since sixth grade.
"I think just the fact that my stepfather did that and I looked up to him," Appel said. "I was always interested in horses and riding."
Appel said "things started to click for me" when he was in seventh grade. As a high school freshman he ranked in the top 15 in the state point standings. As a sophomore, he finished fourth in the standings in tie-down roping, which earned him a trip to the nationals.
This year, he is second in points in tie-down roping, which is also known as calf roping and involves roping a calf, then dismounting from your horse and tying three of the calf's legs together. The fastest time wins. A good performance this week could push Appel to the top of the standings.
He and Lane Bateman, of Plant City, are tied for fifth in team roping, where one rider ropes a calf around its head and the other then ropes the calf's back legs.
Appel, who practices roping about three days a week, said rodeo has not allowed him time to pursue other sports. He was a defensive end in football and wrestled at 138 pounds, but gave up both for rodeo.
Monek, who is fourth in barrel racing and in the top 15 in the points in pole bending and breakaway roping, started in English riding when she was 7. She later tried rodeo.
"My mom was involved with barrel racing and I kind of crossed over," she said. "It was more fun and it seemed like a crowd I wanted to be in. I was actually very good at English, too."
She did rodeo and English while in middle school, but the academic demands of high school forced her to give up English riding.
Her rodeo career took off, as Monek qualified for the state championship all four years. She was sixth in barrel racing as a freshman and qualified for the nationals as a sophomore and junior. She also was the state rodeo queen last year and competed at the national pageant, where she finished in the top 15 in most categories.
"I had a great time," Monek said. "I'd never done a pageant before."
Now she is focused on the state championship and getting back to nationals. She rides her horse Boo — "He's my best friend" — every day and works on technique with him. Barrel racing has her circling barrels as fast as she can. Pole bending has her weaving through a series of six poles. Breakaway roping has Monek roping a calf, then stopping Boo so the rope comes off the saddle.
It's hard work, but the benefits are huge.
"Whenever I go riding, it's kind of my escape," Monek said. "I'm one with nature, and it's exciting."
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