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Leo & Sharon Camarillo: a College Cowgirl Ropes the No. 1 Rodeo Cowboy

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Leo Camarillo may have been on his way to becoming the world’s champion all-round cowboy, but Sharon Meffan’s folks weren’t sure he was worth the rope to lasso him when the kids eloped to Vegas last November. After all, the rodeo circuit combines the peril of Grand Prix road racing with all the luxe and emoluments of Class D baseball.

The PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) stages its competitions not at glamorous Monaco or Sebring but in the boondocks like Deadwood, S. Dak. And one of the few 1970s superstar perks that rodeo champs enjoy is unlikely to endear them to in-laws: groupies called “gold-buckle seekers” compete for the ornate PRCA belt-buckle prizes the cowboys sometimes recompense them with the morning after. “It was never hard for me to find a girl at a rodeo,” Leo concedes. And because travel costs are not reimbursed, spouses rarely accompany their partners. “Unless they compete,” says one, “wives are just excess baggage.”

So Sharon, who was never all that enthralled stewing for Western Airlines anyway, became a full-time barrel racer. It is the only PRCA event in which women are allowed. Virginia Slims has ignored the Marlboro macho world of wrangling, and so far, cowgirls have come no way, baby. Sharon’s winnings for 1975, to date, total barely $4,000. Her road expenses—and her horses—chew up a large chunk of that. Of course, Leo, though the Joe Namath or Jack Nicklaus of cowboys this year, has earned only $38,000 himself.

That is his gross. Over the Labor Day weekend, typically, Camarillo went virtually without sleep and subsisted on tacos and candy bars to compete in Winnemucca, Nev. and Evanston, Wyo., plus three different California towns, Bishop, Lancaster and Sacramento. Though he won $3,300, Leo had invested $1,500 in entry fees, charter flights and other expenses. His only other source of income is in “jackpots,” the unsanctioned contests in which the cowboys hustle each other. Leo says he and Sharon (she joins him sometimes for mixed doubles in team roping) are $10,000 ahead this season. The Camarillos insist they do not participate in the lucrative but illegal “calcuttas” in which high-rolling spectators buy and bet on rodeo participants. The only commercialization the Camarillos profit from is rodeo product endorsement—but not at, say, the Pelé or even Di Maggio level. All Leo and Sharon get, for the use of their name, is free gear.

Leo and Sharon, now 29 and 27, met last year at a rodeo in Riverside, Calif. “When I first saw her,” Camarillo recalls, “I thought she was a classy, intelligent lady.” But she rebuffed his original approach and their first date, a month later, ended up in a fight on the way home. “I said,” he recalls, ” ‘The hell with you!’ I didn’t give a goddam about anyone, particularly a woman.” Sharon wasn’t exactly lifted out of her stirrups either. “I really hated Leo in the beginning and so did my friends,” she notes. “He used to fly to Yuma where I was living and call from the airport to ask me out to dinner. I would say, ‘How dare you?’ In a way, he was like any other star in sports. He was used to having girls be so nice and proud to be seen with him. But I was involved in rodeoing myself and he didn’t impress me.” By then Sharon, who had won a college championship for goat-tying, had turned pro on the side between Western flights. “Before he met me,” she adds, “Leo hated cowgirls. He thought the barrel racers were too rough. But after dating awhile, he said it was great. At last, he had someone he could communicate with about roping.” (His first marriage had foundered by then after seven years.)

As a kid, Leo and his brother Jerry (also a name on the circuit) had to live with their ranch-hand dad’s thwarted ambitions to be a rodeo star. “He kept forcing his way of life on us,” remembers Leo. “We had no choice. We knew nothing different. He would set up bottles on the ground and give us a small rope—we would want to quit but he wouldn’t let us.” Though a poor student in high school, Leo was a super jock, which his father dimly viewed as a waste of time, and further education was out of the question. “We were taught that college was only for rich people. That it was out of our class. Now I wish I had cracked those books. I’m just beginning to love reading.” So, instead of the ivy-covered halls, Leo, his brother, and cousin Reg hit the rodeo trail. “In the first one we ever entered, Reg and I pooled our whole bankroll—$30. We won $1,100 apiece. That did it. It seemed like $11 million to us. There was no turning back.”

Sharon’s father was an aeronautical engineer in Redondo Beach, Calif. and it was her godfather, who ran a stockyard and feedlot, who got her into horses. She was competing by the age of 14, and won a rodeo scholarship to California State Polytechnic University. “Rodeos are to Cal Poly what football is to Notre Dame,” she explains. She earned her bachelor’s in business administration (with a minor in agriculture) before flying Western.

“I always had to win,” she says, “even playing marbles as a kid. But I am not a woman’s lib person. I think a wife should be at home. Well, maybe not in the home, but that is your job.” Home is in Oakdale, Calif., where the Camarillos have 10 head of horses and a housebroken rabbit. “Right now,” says Sharon, “both our schedules are too busy to start a family. You get so involved in this it is your whole life.” But perhaps Sharon’s most satisfying trophy is not the gold buckle from Leo which cinches her jeans but the new respect of her parents. “They are happy about us now,” she exults, “because we are happy.”