Ashley Fitzsimmons, Cunningham junior at Fort Hays State University, is gearing up for an opportunity many would lack the nerve to pursue. She is set to sing the national anthem at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in Casper, Wyo., in June. She is the daughter of Dean and Jerree Fitzsimmons, rural Pratt County.
Fitzsimmons is one of six individuals selected to perform at the opening of each day's events. FHSU Rodeo Coach Bronc Rumford encouraged her to enter the national anthem contest.
The contest required singers to upload videos to YouTube as a preliminary round. A committee chose the top six, said Fitzsimmons, and from there, the contest was put to public vote on Facebook. The contest ended with Fitzsimmons in second place. The winner performs the night of Saturday, June 15, the biggest night for the rodeo. Fitzsimmons performs Friday night.
While singing at a rodeo will be nothing new, Fitzsimmons is looking forward to having a larger audience.
"I've always enjoyed watching rodeos since I've been little, and I love singing, so I'm really excited to sing in front of a big crowd like that," she said. "I think it'll be quite the adrenaline rush."
Singing is a family tradition for Fitzsimmons. Her mother took vocal lessons and sang when she was in high school. As a child, Fitzsimmons sang in church during the offertory. She began taking vocal lessons in fifth grade and sang in music festivals once she reached junior high. Her high school singing career consisted of her taking solos to state and tri-state festivals. Additionally, she sang solos in church and lent her voice to choirs and praise bands at First United Methodist Church in Pratt.
Fitzsimmons has performed the national anthem at numerous events, including football and basketball games, and the county fair.
"During 4-H horse projects when they do timed events, they have kind of a grand entry where they say a prayer as well as sing the national anthem, so I've done that a few times," she said.
She also sang at Fort Hays State University's rodeo in April for all four performances.
Nerves don't seem to be an issue for Fitzsimmons, who focuses on other aspects of her performance to remain calm.
"It's just something kind of natural, and I just really think about the meaning of the song. It doesn't matter what song I'm singing, I just go out there and do it and remember that God gave me this wonderful, wonderful gift of singing and trying to give that opportunity to someone else by letting them hear my voice."
"The Star-Spangled Banner's significance to the country also provides Fitzsimmons with a sense of calm.
"Thinking about all the military that are maybe out in the audience and how important this song is and how important the song is to Americans, and just really thinking about the song and what it really means, I think, is what really keeps me calm."
The CNFR is in its 65th year, and is being hosted in Casper for the 15th consecutive year. More than 400 contestants, selected from the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association's 11 regions, participate. Contestants include the top three students in each event, and the top two men's and women's teams nationwide. This year's rodeo runs Sunday, June 9, through Saturday, June 15.
Fitzsimmons receives a free ticket and two additional tickets for guests and one night's stay in a hotel. This will be her first time attending the CNFR and in Wyoming.
The opportunity to perform is humbly accepted by Fitzsimmons, who places the credit with a higher power.
"I hope and pray that it all goes well and I thank God for the opportunity. I thank Bronc for encouraging me to go forth with this and my family and friends that have stood behind me the whole time. I really appreciate it."