WALLA WALLA - Nicole Aichele's heart sank when she watched friend and rival Courtney Frazier's barrel race Memorial Day weekend in Pasco.
Frazier beat the TRAC arena record, spinning through in 16.691.
Aichele, the last rider up, knew she'd have to make it fast.
"I knew she broke the arena record, and she was really fast," Aichele said. "I knew it'd have to be all or nothing, and I thought, ‘I'd better go for it.'"
So Aichele leaned forward and whispered in Blondie, her Palomino mare's, ear.
"Blondie loves attention. She's really spoiled," Aichele said. "I told her if she ran a ‘16,' I'd ride in the trailer with her back to Walla Walla."
When the gates opened, the pair sprinted hard, circling the first barrel a hair slower than Aichele wanted.
But they brushed the second barrel, and it tottered.
"I was looking back, and I saw that it was rocking," she said. "I thought it was going to fall."
Before it came to rest upright, Aichele and Blondie were around the third barrel and dashing to the gate to crashing applause.
In 16.643 seconds.
Besting Frazier by .048 seconds.
And besting the world barrel record on a standard arena by 1/1000th of a second.
No small feat, especially for the 17-year-old Wa-Hi junior.
Aichele rode home in the trailer.
"I couldn't break my promise," she beamed.
The record was cleanly broken and has been certified by barrel racing judges.
"It was exciting, to say the least," Aichele said, about a week after the ride.
"It's still a blur. I really don't remember what happened."
Mike Gammelgard, founder and owner of Barrel Racers National 4D (BRN4D), the largest barrel racing organization in the West and the sponsor of the championship finals Memorial Day weekend, can fill in the blanks.
"We knew immediately that she'd broken the TRAC time," he said. "I thought she'd broken the record, but I double-checked on the Internet just to make sure.
"She did, and the crowd jumped and screamed and cried," Gammelgard said.
Aichele's previous best barrel time was 16.751, set two years ago. Usually, a time in the low 17's is good, she said.
"So for me, that time is really, really great," she said.
It's pretty great for everyone else, too.
"It's wonderful to see someone who works hard and is successful," said Gammelgard. "People in the grandstands went wild. We have the fastest time ever in the sport by a little local girl in Walla Walla ... There are some huge names and huge ranches that do nothing but breed and train barrel horses, with the finest riders, and of all the big-name champions in the world, to never have one run that fast on a standard track - it's amazing."
The four-day barrel racing event had more than 400 competitors from five states and two Canadian provinces in attendance. The fastest 20 times rode Memorial Day, with the fleetest time riding last.
That would be Aichele.
"It's a great story of good girl done good," Gammelgard said.
And perhaps more than her record-shattering time, something she wears atop her blonde hair makes Aichele stand out from fellow barrel racers.
Aichele wears a helmet when she competes - and she's in the minority.
"Last year, I took a sports medicine class, and we did the unit on concussions," Aichele said. "We talked about sports like football, and motorcycling, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about horseback riding. I've been riding the barrels and I've had a couple falls where my head has been pretty close to the barrel.
"I trust my horses, but they're running so hard, or the ground gives and they trip - it's a safety net. With the mental disabilities, or death - it's really stupid not to wear a helmet just because it looks dorky."
About 20 percent of all injuries to equestrians are due to head injuries, with about 11,500 traumatic brain injuries per year befalling riders, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. And three out of five equestrian deaths are due to head injuries.
And although many types of equestrian competitions, including racing and English shows like the American Horse Shows Association, the U.S. Equestrian Team and the U.S. Pony Club require competitors to wear helmets, most rodeo circuits do not.
"People ask me why I wear it," Aichele said. "I explain, and a lot of people agree with me. I don't know if I've changed what anyone else does, but hopefully some will."
The helmet hasn't gone unnoticed.
Gammelgard, for one, is impressed. He's planning to begin an effort to require pee-wee and youth barrel riders to helmet up.
"I'm going to ask Nicole to head up the helmet end of the deal," Gammelgard said. "Nicole might spearhead that movement. If BRN4D does it, everyone else will."
And the helmet, strapped under her chin, might even have played a role in her record-breaking time.
"Who knows," she said, shrugging. "Maybe it's more aerodynamic. It doesn't fly off (like hats usually do). I mean, that's 1/1000th of a second. Maybe it made a difference."
Aichele and Blondie's time beat the previous best, 16.644, set in 2002 by Tanya Steinhoff riding Hot Shot in Oklahoma.
The pair have been working together since Blondie - a Quarter Horse registered under the name Biankus French Girl - was 2 years old. Aichele and her father bought her and trained her. She's now 8.
Aichele has been riding since she was 3-years-old. She hopes to make a career out of horses.
An honor student, ASB secretary and 2009-10 FFA president, Aichele wants to study equine and human sports medicine, preferably at Colorado State University, one of the top veterinary schools in the country. Off-school hours, she's involved with 4-H and is a member of the Valley Girls Barrel Racing Association.
This summer she'll be taking classes at Walla Walla Community College to finish some high school credits, like language arts, so she can focus on science and math during her upcoming senior year.
Now, rodeo sponsors have begun to contact Aichele, and she's thinking more than ever about rodeo post-high school. She wants to join the pro circuit when she turns 18 and ride through college.
And she hopes her career helps her do it.
"It's something I can do on the road," she said of equine and human sports medicine. "I can work my job and pay my fuel bills and ride. I don't have to worry about winning all the time."
Wherever she goes, she won't be far removed from her four-legged friends and partners.
Aichele races three mares, and she's hoping to breed one of them soon.
"I couldn't be split from them," she said emphatically. "I'd get separation anxiety."
Wherever she goes, her name is in a record book.
"In the world of barrel racing," Gammelgard declared, "this is huge."