Dec. 10, 1995: Sherry Cervi wins the first of four rodeo world championships
In 1995, when Sherry Cervi won the first of her four world barrel racing championships, she said, “I lucked out.”
But not really. A year earlier, at 19, Cervi thought she had a better year and a superior performance at the National Finals Rodeo but finished second by an eyelash.
Over the next 20 years the eyelashes were on Cervi’s side. She won world titles in 1999, 2010 and 2013, becoming the most successful barrel racer in history, pushing her career earnings past $3 million.
A former all-conference basketball player at Marana High School, Cervi started rodeo competition when she was 6. It figured; her parents, Mel and Wendy Potter of Marana, were both successful members of the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association. Her older sister, Jo Lynn, was the national all-around cowgirl champion as a teenager.
But it has never been easy. In 2001 her first husband, Mike Cervi, a rodeo stock contractor, was killed in a private plane crash in Wisconsin; Sherry and Mike had been married for six years.
In 2013, she married one of the top tie-down ropers in the PRCA, Cory Petska.
When Cervi won the 2013 world title, her road to the top was typical of the devotion required at the elite level of pro rodeo. In a one-month period in June and July, 2013, Cervi won $242 in Clovis, New Mexico, another $738 in Wainwright, Alberta, and $686 in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. She drove to small-town rodeos in Silver City, New Mexico; Walla Walla, Washington; and to Fourth of July-type celebrations in Prescott and Payson. She won the granddaddy of all rodeos, the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.
That was a month’s work.
But after more than 45 rodeos and tens of thousands of air and highway miles, she ended up winning 12 championships in 2013, the most notable being the National Finals Rodeo, at which she earned $155,899.
A few days before Christmas in 2013, back on the family ranch in Marana, Cervi posted this on her Facebook page: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
That old Robert Louis Stevenson line defined her 2013 season, her remarkable career, one rodeo by one rodeo.
At 5 feet 10 inches, Cervi might have been built better for basketball than rodeo. She did both sports in high school, hurrying home from the gym to ride in the family’s arena until dark.
With her mother as chauffeur, she would often play basketball games for Marana on Friday night, wake up and dawn and drive to a rodeo somewhere in Arizona for the rest of the weekend.
“Her mom was pretty well that way — kind of a workaholic,” Mel Potter told Western Horseman magazine 10 years ago. “I think that’s probably where Sherry got that determination.”
After her high school days, Cervi enrolled at Central Arizona College to compete on the school’s rodeo team. A year later she quit the CAC team but stayed in school while beginning a pro career.
A year later she was a world champion. By 1999, winning her second world title, she broke the world record for most money won in a season by a barrel racer, $245,000.
Where are they now? Cervi, 40, has reduced her competitive schedule. She had competed in just 15 rodeos through late June; the money leaders averaged close to 40. Cervi spends time working at her family’s other business enterprise, Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., in Wisconsin. The Potters have a 400-acre cranberry bog in Wisconsin. She also stages Sherry Cervi Youth Championships for hundreds of young cowgirls in the West.
How she did it: Cervi’s father and mentor, Mel Potter, a Tucson High grad, competed actively on the PRCA circuit for about 30 years. In 2015 he received pro rodeo’s greatest award, the annual Wrangler “Legend” award presented during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Photo: Sherry Cervi screams past a barrel during the women's barrel racing competition at the 75th annual Tucson Rodeo on Feb. 25, 2000. Photo by James S. Wood / Arizona Daily Star