In rodeo circles, they still talk about the day Tammy Fischer took to the stage and brought the house to silence.
She'd won the Calgary Stampede barrel-racing championship in 2009 and received a cheque for $100,000, then explained to the crowd that she'd just buried her son, Riley. He'd been killed in a truck crash along with two of his friends. He was the driver. All three teens were supposed to be attending college together in the fall.
Even in a rough-hewn sport known for its hard-luck tales, Ms. Fischer's grief struck a painful chord. How could she have done so well with her life in shambles? Would the remarkable rider from Ledbetter, Tex., ever be seen here again?
With four horses, her husband and an energized two-year-old daughter in tow, Ms. Fischer is back in the city where her greatest triumph and saddest moment intersected so suddenly it haunts her still. Racing a horse around a trio of barrels is her skill. Training horses is part of her business. Both take Ms. Fischer from town to town, state to province, where people who know her story always say they admire her strength.
She says they have her figured wrong.
"The thinking I'm the Great Wall of China, it's all fake. I'm just as weak as anyone else," she explains before her first appearance at the 2012 Stampede. "But for the 30 seconds you see me [riding], I'm focused in on what I have to do. If I can do that, I can put what happened behind me."
Ms. Fischer has been a barrel-racing fixture for more than a decade. Twice in the last three years she's won the Cody Stampede in Wyoming. Six times now she's qualified for the National Finals Rodeo, her sport's grand finale. Her mainstay horse, Roundpen, has topped the $1-million mark in winnings and races less frequently as Ms. Fischer grooms her replacements.
But it is her personal saga, her need to keep going and coming back to Wyoming and Alberta even when she had reason enough to stay away, that has made her such a fan favourite.
She used to be a schoolteacher and a librarian, for awhile at least. That was until her love for horses, passed along by her father Jack, who died of cancer in 2006, proved too great to ignore. So Ms. Fischer took to barrel racing and got so much better that she was eventually plotting a full schedule of rodeos and racking up enough mileage to be a long-distance trucker.
She was between rodeos in Nevada when the call came. Riley had been in a wreck; he was gone. He'd just graduated from high school and gotten his own truck. Ms. Fischer's friends helped arrange her flight home on a private jet. She found out her son and his friends had been at a party. The police said Riley was seen holding a beer. Ms. Fischer argued her son hated beer.
An autopsy determined Riley was sober. He'd been the designated driver and fallen asleep on the late drive home.
"I needed the facts," Ms. Fischer says. "He was from a small high school. He was one of 18 kids who graduated. I went back to the school and made sure everyone knew [he hadn't been impaired]."
Two days after Riley's memorial service, Ms. Fischer knew where she had to go – back to her horses and barrel racing. Her husband understood why that had to be.
"She felt guilty for leaving home. But in my opinion, it was the best thing for her," Brian Fischer says. "If you work as a bank teller or a teacher, you would eventually have to go back to work. Her job was on the road."
By the time Ms. Fischer got to the Calgary Stampede she was on auto-pilot. Even now she has little memory of what happened. Brian recalls walking back from the barns on the final Sunday and finding a small, wooden square lying on the ground – "like a Scrabble piece" – only to turn it over and see the letter R on it. R for Riley.
Brian gave it to Tammy, who had it in her pocket during her two last rides. Both were winners. When she told her story from the Stampede stage, she promised to dedicate some of the prize money to a rodeo scholarship in her son's name. Since then, benefit races, silent auctions and dinners have raised more than $20,000 for 20 scholarship recipients.
And there have been other developments in Ms. Fischer's life. She's befriended and advised Olympic skeleton medalist Mellissa Hollingsworth, an active barrel racer who also grew up around horses. Tammy and Brian have Sydney Rae, the daughter they adopted when she was a month old. Sydney now rides along in the Fischer motor home with a caregiver to help tend to her. Riley used to do the same. Brian, a home builder, comes along as much as he can.
In getting back to the road and to Calgary, Ms. Fischer has come full circle. She has her livelihood, her family and her memories of Riley. All of that keeps her moving forward, the only direction she has ever known.
"All you have are two choices," she says in a sure voice. "You can sit in your house and not do anything and, basically, you die also. Or you look at what God left you and do what you're supposed to do with that.
"That's where I've chosen to go."