Life throws us all our share of curveballs, and none of us gets out here without at least a little adversity along the way. Our response to those trials and tribulations tests us, and can either stop us or force us to bear down and try harder. One of the champs at last weekend’s Cowboy Channel Rookie Roundup presented by Resistol lost her thumb to a lead rope when a horse pulled back her freshman year of college. Gianna Cianfichi had a choice—quit roping or find another way. She gritted her teeth and chose door #2. Hey, if Rich Skelton and Kory Koontz can do it, so can she.
It was five years ago that Gianna looked down a split second after the routine act of tying her horse up to see her right thumb missing. Did that really just happen?? Yes. And the week before her first Poly Royal Rodeo her freshman year—in 2017 when they moved the storied Cal Poly Rodeo to Spanos Stadium, held it on our football field for the first time and the sold-out, standing-room-only, over-capacity crowd made it the largest college rodeo in history, no less.
“They flew me to USC (University of Southern California Medical Center), and I had a seven-hour surgery,” remembers Gianna, who grew up in Santa Rosa, and fondly recalls roping lessons from brothers Broc and Brent Cresta as a little girl. “The next afternoon, I had another 11-hour surgery to try and reattach my thumb again. But the blood capsules were destroyed and demolished, so they went ahead and took it off.”
Imagine the shock and devastation of having the skids put to your roll, and the thrill of looking forward to your first College National Finals Rodeo ending so suddenly. But this super-smart BioResource Agricultural Engineering major, who graduated from Cal Poly in 2020 and just turned 24, spun the situation in her bright-side favor.
“I was obviously emotional about it at first, but then it was like, ‘It happened. What’s next? Time to figure it out,’” she said. “My hand was all bandaged up and I wasn’t supposed to do anything for six weeks, because they didn’t want to take a chance on infection. I couldn’t go to the College Finals, so I took a break and went to Spain, Italy and France that summer. I’ve always been about horses my whole life, so I changed things up a little.”
She tried pushing back a bit on doctor’s orders, and picked up a rope about a month post-op. But alas, her doctors were right.
“When I tried swinging a rope early before everything healed, it felt like I hit my funny bone,” she said.
Her hand needed more time to heal, so she went out and saw more of the world. And knowing Gianna Cianfichi the way I do now, she spread so much joy into every new country she visited. It’s what this girl does, and also how she’s approaching her rookie year as a professional rodeo roper.
Gianna doesn’t really have time to rope. She works full time as an Associate Engineer for Stockton East Water District, and is about to marry steer wrestler Kelly O’Day on May 28. But she loves to rope, so she makes and takes the time.
There will be no honeymoon for now. She’ll say “I do,” then roll right into the rodeos in Clovis, New Mexico; Herriman, Utah; and Santa Maria, California.
“The rodeo trail is our honeymoon,” she smiled, thankful that her soon-to-be husband—who owns a business called Well Armed, which teaches concealed-carry and gun safety courses, and also works as an ag shop teacher at Ferndale High up in his Northern California home country—gets it.
Gianna was the maid of honor when my son Lane married his love Jane in our pasture last fall. G and Jane were college roommates and Cal Poly Rodeo teammates, and Jane will be Gianna’s matron of honor at her wedding later this month.
How will Gianna juggle working full time—she’s just starting to work remotely, so can take it with her—with her rookie goals?
“I’ll just Learn by Doing,” she smiled sweetly of our Cal Poly Mustangs motto. “My goal at the beginning of this year was to enter as many rodeos as I can. I’m never going to get better sitting at home. I can be 1 flat all day long in the practice pen at home, but there’s only one way to learn to compete professionally, and that’s to do it.
“There’s a lot of down time in rodeo, so I’ll have plenty of time to work and get my day job done. It’s not like you can practice out on the road anyway. I’m super happy. I’m going for it.”
Cianfichi’s currently ranked #2 in the 2022 rookie race—second only to Louisiana young gun Josie Conner. Gianna’s been living at John and Shelley Holman’s place in Brentwood, California. John’s an NFR bronc rider who traveled with Chris LeDoux, and Shelley’s a well-known West Coast barrel racer. John’s also Grandpa and Head Coach for grandson and fellow NFR bronc rider Lefty Holman. Gianna and Kelly will make their home up north in Fortuna after the wedding.
That trusty old sorrel horse Gianna just won the Rookie Roundup on in the short-score confines of Cowtown Coliseum and also placed on at the recent Clovis Rodeo—where they roped beefy honkers over a much longer line—is 21-year-old Chase (same name as Gianna’s brother, Chase, who just drove her horse to Fort Worth, so she could fly home and get right back to work). Gianna’s ridden Chase since junior high, and he shares her horse trailer with a 16-year-old chestnut mare she calls Lucky.
No one’s popped the practice-pen latch more in G’s lifetime than Daddy Domenic. He’s a heeler, and was one of Broc Cresta’s best buds and pallbearers. Living on after that heartbreak’s been one of his biggest tests in life. But attitude has everything to do with how his little girl holds that bright-orange Rattler Spitfire rope—the same one breakaway roping badasses the likes of Jackie Crawford and Kelsie Chace Domer use—in the most unorthodox way without flinching or ever complaining.
“I really have to work to have a big, open first swing with my tip down toward the front in order to take a fast shot,” said Gianna, who holds her rope between her index and middle fingers, like NFR header Blaine Linaweaver did after losing his thumb. “I can’t force my rope at all. If I do that, it’s ugly, because of the way I hold my rope.
“I know it might sound stupid, but I actually look at losing my thumb as a blessing. I’m never sad about it, and I never had remorse that it couldn’t be put back on. The way I see it, if they’d reattached it with all the damage done to it, it would have been in the way. And I’m doing just fine without it.”