Mississippi woman living a dream as rodeo's first lady

Paige Nicholson’s life will never be the same.

The 22-year-old from Lawrence, Miss., realized a lifelong dream Monday when she was crowned Miss Rodeo America 2014 at the MGM Grand Garden. Nicholson, a recent graduate from Mississippi State University with a degree in agriculture information science, won the personality and horsemanship categories at the weeklong pageant en route to claiming the most coveted crown in the Western world.

She topped 27 other state rodeo queens in the grueling competition, which ran from Dec. 2-9, and is set for a year of serving as the top ambassador for the sport of rodeo. I sat down with the blond beauty in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo press room as the bareback riding got going Wednesday night to get her thoughts on what she had just accomplished.

Q. Your time since being crowned Miss Rodeo America on Monday has been a frenzy. Describe your emotions.

PN: I’m just honored and overwhelmed, and it’s still a little surreal to me that they chose me. I’m just so grateful, and I feel like I’ve got a tall order to fill. They told me as soon as I came off stage as Miss Rodeo America, “Your time is no longer your own.” And it hasn’t and has been a shuffle since then. It’s been nonstop.

I think maybe today it’s actually hit me that I’m going to get to be Miss Rodeo America. It’s such a huge honor and is something I’ve only dared to dream about, so it’s just now sinking in as reality for me.

Q. What was it like when you were officially introduced as Miss Rodeo America during the Wrangler NFR’s opening ceremony on Monday night?

PN: Being introduced at the Thomas &Mack is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a child. Just the feeling you get in that moment is unlike anything else. I can’t even describe it, and it was more than I ever expected. I felt like my heart was going to jump right out of my chest.

Q. What were you thinking as the field was narrowed down to 10 and then five and your name was still being called out?

PN: When the coronation started, our dads get to walk us out. We hadn’t seen our families the whole week, so that was really special and I was really emotional about it. They started calling out the Top 10, and I was really excited that I made the Top 10. After I made it to the Top Five and after I answered my Top Five question, I was standing backstage talking to my national director, and I said, “I’ve done it now. I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish.” It was my dream to be Miss Rodeo America, but it was my goal to be in the Top Five. It was really great to accomplish that, and it was just a weight lifted off. I was just so ecstatic.

Q. Describe the moments before the final announcement was made with you and Miss Rodeo Colorado Sara Wiens standing on stage in anticipation.

PN: When it got to that moment, I was standing there talking to Sara, who is just a fantastic example of a person. I told her, “You’ve been so positive all week, and I’ve never looked at you when you didn’t look energetic, excited and proud to be here.” I said, “That’s what Miss Rodeo America (winners) are made of. You are a fantastic and respectable person.”

Any way it could have gone after I made the Top Five, I was going to be excited about it.

Q. What was the week during the competition like?

PN: The pageant itself was amazing and overwhelming and tiring, but it wasn’t nearly as stressful as I was told it was going to be. The week was great for me. I had a great time with the other girls, and the contest itself was really fun. I really enjoyed getting to know our judges, and the horsemanship competition was the highlight of my week.

It’s been everything I’ve ever dreamed of it being. The first time I saw the pageant, I was 18, and I’ve seen it every year since then. I’ve imagined it in my head a million times, and I’ve gone through the process and imagined what it’d be like. I’ve known a lot of the girls who have been through it, so I thought I knew what to expect when I got here, but I didn’t.

Q. You won the horsemanship competition despite having a horse fall during one of your patterns. What does that mean to you?

PN: I drew a great horse in the first round, and then my second-round horse fell down with me actually. He slipped down in the arena, so that was kind of a different experience that’s never happened at the Miss Rodeo American Pageant. Mine and the first runner-up’s horses both fell, so that was kind of interesting.

It’s always my favorite compliment to be called a horsewoman, and to win the horsemanship at the Miss Rodeo America Pageant is really an amazing honor. It’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.

Q. Has Miss Rodeo America 2013 Chenae Shiner given you an idea of what’s in store for you next year?

PN: Chenae has been a great leader this week. She knows what it’s like to be a little overwhelmed by this, and I’ve been observing her and learning what I’m up against. She is step-by-step and situation-by-situation telling me what I need to know. In the limo ride on the way to my press conference, she said, “This isn’t the pageant anymore. There are no wrong answers, and this is your time. Thank who you need to thank and say what you’re feeling. Just tell them who you are and what you’re grateful for.”

She’s just been outstanding. She’s what Miss Rodeo America should be. She’s a role model for others, and especially for me.

Q. You will travel more than 100,000 miles and attend rodeos and events across the country next year. What are you most looking forward to about being an ambassador for rodeo?

PN: Traveling. I love to be gone. I love home and came from Mississippi, and I always love to be home with my family. But if I can pack a bag and go somewhere else every four nights, that’s what I do and that’s what I’m going to get to do.

Q. You plan to go to law school at the University of Mississippi after your reign as Miss Rodeo America is through and want to be an advocate for agriculture and the Western way of life. What are your plans for your career?

PN: I’ve spent a lot of time in marketing and public relations in the past, and that’s essentially what Miss Rodeo America is. So, I think I’ll always be in that field. The reason I want to get a law degree is because of the credibility it provides. Just having that degree will help me accomplish things. It’s a very versatile degree.

Q. What’s it like when you go to rodeos and you get to meet little girls who look up to you and might even want to be a rodeo queen like you some day?

PN: It gives you a sense of responsibility. You feel personally responsible about the way they feel about themselves and the way you impact them. It’s such a huge honor and responsibility for them to look up to you like that. It’s a challenge, and you want to be the person they see when they look up to you.

A freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo., Neal Reid spent six years as editor of the ProRodeo Sports News. His writing has appeared in USA Today, Newsday, Western Horseman, American Cowboy and the Denver Post, among other publications. Follow @NealReid21 on Twitter.