James Cheng / msnbc.com
Jenna Smeenk, left, a 21-year-old from Belle Fourche, S.D., and her sister Trisha, 23, prepare before the start of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas on Monday, Dec. 6. The sisters are part of a 20-person Flag Team that performs at the start of the event each night.
LAS VEGAS – Every big show needs an opening act, and when the lights go down each night at the start of the National Finals Rodeo, Jenna and Trisha Smeenk are two of the first people the fans see, bursting out of the gate to the roar of the crowd as part of a 20-member flag drill team.
They fly into the arena in pairs, making a 90-degree turn as they enter the big stage, driving their horses at breakneck speed while displaying complete control and precision with their team members.
“Carrying flags is a little more complicated than you might think,” says Trisha Smeenk, a 23-year-old broadcast journalism major at South Dakota State. “It’s a lot about precision. Since we’re all going so fast and it happens so quickly, if you’re not together it matters and we get told we weren’t perfect that night. And then we start practicing,” she laughs, “and we stay late.”
Trisha Smeenk is in her fifth year with the team, and Jenna, a 21-year-old studying advertising and political science at S.D. State, is in her fourth. Like many of those associated with rodeo, the sisters come from a ranching background. Their father’s business in Belle Fourche, S.D., has been in the family for three generations, and they have raised everything from cattle and horses to pigs and buffalo.
The Smeenks were handpicked for the flag team and arrived two days before the competition to get matched with a horse and learn to ride with the other members of the team. Timing is crucial to keep the choreography fine-tuned, so they practice as many as three hours a day. That, plus the performance time, doesn’t leave much time for anything else, but they don’t mind.
“It’s really cool to be back … with the people you just watch on TV and consider a celebrity, and I think a lot of people would love to be in these shoes,” says Jenna Smeenk. “It’s hard to keep a level head and just do your job without getting too starry-eyed.”
They also enjoy any chance to be a part of the rodeo culture.
“I’ve watched the Wrangler National Finals since I was in preschool,” says Trisha Smeenk. “I’ve watched them on TV, and now I get to ride right beside everybody I’ve watched forever.”
“Just the other day we were walking home to our hotel from here, and somebody we didn’t know picked us up and gave us a ride,” says Jenna Smeenk. “And we wouldn’t do that unless he was driving a dually pickup. You feel like you can trust people who are in this industry, and it’s really cool to not know them, and feel like you can trust them.”
See Faces of the Rodeo: The cowboys. Get to know some of the top competitors in rodeo, and find out what they love about their sport.