Effective on July 13, 2020, Whitney DeSalvo – just 25 years old – became the first female team roper ever classified as a No. 8.
“It feels pretty good, but then again, a lot of things have to change once you get to this point,” said DeSalvo of Springfield, Arkansas. “It’s honestly been a goal of mine to get that number.”
DeSalvo didn’t really expect the bump when it came because she hadn’t entered much in 2020. Still, the defending and three-time WPRA world champion heeler dominates every jackpot she enters – including June’s Charlie 1 Horse Challenge to the tune of $30,000. She’s leading the standings of the Women’s Rodeo World Championship, to boot.
“She’s rank,” said five-time NFR heeler Ryan Motes “Her timing is really good and you don’t see very many girls able to put that much power on their rope. She comes around there and heels a steer like she means it.”
In 2016, Motes was jackpotting around home and heading as a 7 when DeSalvo lived nearby and was still a 6.5. She was his choice for the #13 jackpots – and that’s near Stephenville, Texas, where partners abound.
“She’s a good 8 and she’ll win as an 8,” continued Motes. “She’s not afraid to work at it, and she doesn’t get lucky; she catches because she’s supposed to catch. I remember we were breaking in steers one day and I headed her some and she just came around and was legit – on fresh, fresh Mexicans that were hitting out of time.”
World Series rules allow any female heeler to tie on, but DeSalvo chooses to dally. She feels like she ropes sharper that way, and she doesn’t like her small horses to take those tied-on hits. It’s not like there haven’t been incentives to tie on. DeSalvo has screws in her thumb from a 2017 dallying mishap and she shattered a finger in 2019 that required pins and still won’t bend. Plus, we won’t mention the rope burns.
But difficulty doesn’t faze this one. DeSalvo moved to Monticello to go to the University of Arkansas – in person – and graduated with a degree in health and physical education. Last year, she placed tenth in the team roping at the College National Finals Rodeo heeling for Slayton Taylor against the likes of Paden Bray and Ross Ashford. Bray and Ashford finished 17 and 20, respectively, in the PRCA that season.
DeSalvo’s mom, Debbie DeSalvo, put a rope in her hand as a kid and she learned great swing mechanics from Harold D. McCain while also spending a lot of time at the nearby home of her mom’s friend Lori Thone (whose husband, Brandon, won the 2006 BFI). Today, DeSalvo focuses on heeling despite being a talented breakaway roper.
“I think it’s the challenge of it,” she said. “Heeling is really hard in the beginning until you fight through that. Once you figure it out, it’s like, ‘Why haven’t I been able to do this before now?’ I think heeling was just something I wanted to be good at. I struggled for so long that I just stayed after it until I figured it out.”
DeSalvo took two Britt Bockius schools at the Thone arena. At 16, while being home-schooled, she was camping at Jackie Crawford’s place in Texas and took a Rich Skelton school. A few years later, she rode horses for NFR heeler Shay Carroll, living in her trailer. Then in 2016, she called and asked eventual world champ Paul Eaves if she could work for him. She stayed over a year, practicing with the best heelers in the world.
“I still like to watch Paul – his swing and how he rides are things I try to mimic,” DeSalvo said. “Also, I think Hunter Koch heels outstanding and I watch his videos a lot. The other day before the BFI roping, I probably watched every single video of Hunter they have on X Factor.”
DeSalvo bought her PRCA permit last year and placed fourth at Springfield, Missouri with Dilan Rucker. She’ll likely renew that card in the post-pandemic 2021 season. In the meantime, she plans to continue improving so she can be competitive enough to enter Open ropings.
DeSalvo, who works for Randy and Sheila Hawkins in Arkansas and mentors their roping grandsons Blaine and Cooper Caldwell, said she learned things from practicing with Motes, Eaves, Carroll, Lari Dee Guy and Jade Corkill when she was hauling with his sister Bailey. But it was pure sweat and determination that has made her the best female heeler in history.
“I think the main thing was that I made the decision to be disciplined enough to catch every steer in the practice pen,” she said. “It might be on the eighth hop, but I decided I would rope two feet every time.”
DeSalvo was barely old enough to drink when she made that decision. She spent an entire summer tracking 30 to 40 steers every night – at midnight to beat the sticky Arkansas heat – until she went a solid week without missing or roping a leg.
That’s the kind of work ethic that says young DeSalvo isn’t done making history.