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Maui woman rides her Makawao roots to the national stage

Gabrielle Berce to vie for Miss Rodeo America title in November

Crowned Miss Rodeo Hawaii 2021 at the Makawao Stampede on July 3, Gabrielle Berce will vie for the title of Miss Rodeo America starting Nov. 28 in Las Vegas. — Courtesy photo

As a 5th-grader competing in her first rodeo at Oskie Rice Arena in Makawao, Gabrielle Berce remembers watching girls her age in the barrel racing competition.

“They were fast and furious,” she said. “I wanted to be just like them.”

When it was her turn, she and her horse were out the gate, posting a time of 25 seconds, “which is actually quite slow,” compared to other competitors’ scores of 20 and 21 seconds, Berce said.

“But that was a turning point for me,” the Maui native said. “It was a huge wake-up call that if I wanted to be serious, I needed to better myself as a rider and a horseman. It fueled me to get serious.”

So serious that she was crowned Miss Rodeo Hawaii 2021 at the Makawao Stampede on July 3.

Gabrielle Berce, who grew up wanting to be just like the young female barrel racers at the Makawao Rodeo, is now a tough competitor in her own right. Outside the arena, she’s also an ambassador for rodeo, ranching, farming and the paniolo heritage. — Courtesy photo

She will be vying for the title of Miss Rodeo America starting Nov. 28 in Las Vegas.

The eight-day pageant is sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The competition includes horsemanship and riding skills, a written examination, daily interviews, state chaps design, Justin Boots design, scrapbook contest, Wrangler and Western elegance fashion shows and appearances at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

“I’m excited, nervous,” said Berce, a 26-year-old speech-language pathologist who grew up in Makawao. “I’m mostly excited that Hawaii will be having a representative for the first time in about three years. I feel the pressure, but I will represent Hawaii the best that I can.”

Over the years, only a handful of Maui residents have been selected as Miss Rodeo Hawaii by the Miss Rodeo Hawaii Association.

Berce said she has aspired since she was a child to be like the women selected before her.

“In my mind, they were always the type of person and rider I wanted to be — someone who is an avid horseman, who knew her horse, could hop on anyone else’s horse and be successful,” she said.

Berce was a toddler when she began going to horse shows with her parents, Glenn Berce and Linda Uradomo-Berce, who competed in the events. She would “nag and whine” to her parents to be allowed to compete before, at age 5, she participated in a lead line competition, which involves a child on a horse that’s held and guided by an adult.

As she improved her skills after her first rodeo, Berce got faster in barrel racing to the point where she and her horse were competing at 19 seconds or less. She has been in the top 10 in annual Fourth of July rodeo competitions on Maui.

She had competed on her all-around mare, Anela, before she had to be put down a week after Berce was crowned Miss Rodeo Hawaii. She lost her gelding, Gucci, little more than a year ago.

“It’s been so heartwarming that the community have been offering me their horses to ride, to practice or to compete,” she said.

Her favorite competition is the working cow horse cutting horse event, where a rider takes the horse into a herd of cattle to separate one cow from the group and maneuver the horse to keep the cow away from the herd.

“It’s not just focused on speed and time but also finesse and ability to work cohesively with a horse,” Berce said.

The event incorporates a horse’s ability to read the cattle and has practical applications on a working ranch when a calf has to be separated from its mother, she said.

Berce has a bachelor’s degree from Chico State University in California and a master’s degree from the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii.

As Miss Rodeo Hawaii, she is an ambassador promoting rodeo, ranching, farming and the paniolo heritage. Drawing on her mother’s farming heritage as part of the Uradomo family from Kula, Berce’s mission is to raise awareness to support local farmers, ranchers and businesses and to educate keiki on basic agricultural skills, including gardening and animal husbandry.

“Being in the health care field, I have had such a unique position of seeing just how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people medically, financially, as many lose their homes, their jobs,” she said. “It’s been absolutely devastating seeing many of our farmers and ranchers lose their land or having to give up animals because they can no longer afford to feed them.

“My goal is to continue raising awareness of shopping and supporting local, finding those labels at the store that say ‘locally sourced, locally grown’ and trying to give back to our farmers and agricultural community.”

She has talked with students at Waihee School about planting cycles “so they can go home and start cultivating their own plants.”

“Mahalo to my community,” Berce said. “Thanks to everyone in the Upcountry community that has supported me. From day one they have stepped up to the plate. The outpouring of support has been incredible.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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