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Young rodeo rider refuses to yield to physical limitations

LEWISBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Josi Davis is a champion rodeo rider and the apple of her mother’s eye. But this 12-year-old is first and foremost a survivor.

Diagnosed at the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital at the age of 4 with immune deficiency syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Josi barely remembers a time when this dual sword of Damocles did not hang over her head.

Her mother, Linda Helmick, well remembers that devastating diagnosis.

“They said the survival rate for a child with what Josi has is 20 percent,” Helmick told The Register-Herald. “She was not supposed to even be able to walk. She has to have IV infusions every three weeks just to keep her alive.”

Listening impassively as her mother relayed her history, the soft-spoken seventh-grader occasionally clarified a date or smiled when the talk turned to her twin passions — her horse, Onyx, and rodeo competition.

In an essay that helped bring her recognition as Student Athlete of the Month in November’s issue of National High School Rodeo Association Times, Josi wrote, “I refuse to give up. My horses and rodeo are my life.”

Helmick explained her daughter’s devotion to rodeo, saying Josi started riding “farm horses” in 2015 but proved she was serious about pursuing the sport when she sold her American Girl doll collection to buy a more nimble horse. After that horse died, Josi saved her money and bought Onyx, her current mount.

“The Lord has his way to work things out,” Helmick said.

The family, which includes Josi’s older siblings, Helmick’s husband, Mark Henson, and their 4-year-old foster child, lives on an 80-acre farm on Hollywood Road near Union in Monroe County. The family farm also serves as Josi’s classroom; she is homeschooled via online coursework.

Josi mostly competes in rodeos in West Virginia and Virginia, but she will be on the road to North Carolina later this month, with a trip to Ohio later in the year. She hopes to qualify for a youth championship that will be held in Indiana this year, but Helmick pointed out that she earlier had qualified for the world championships but couldn’t afford to go.

“We are poor people,” Helmick said with a self-deprecating laugh. “And this horse world is expensive.”

Friends and family plan to hold a raffle sometime this year to raise money that will allow Josi to continue to compete, and Helmick said, “We are always open to any sponsors.”

Jim Johnson, owner of Shawnee Farms in Lewisburg and for more than 30 years involved in state and national Cutting Horse Associations, has recently taken an interest in Josi’s endeavors, Helmick noted. Josi now helps out around Shawnee Farms, cleaning out stalls and other tasks, and in exchange Johnson allows her to practice at his facility and offers her advice and instruction.

Helmick is aware that participating in such an active sport as rodeo riding presents certain hazards for any youngster and even more for her daughter, given Josi’s health issues. Ehlers-Danos syndrome is a group of disorders that affect connective tissues supporting the skin, bones, blood vessels and other organs and tissues. What that means for Josi is that her tendons are “loose,” and her kneecaps easily slip out of place, Helmick said.

In 2017, the perils were firmly brought home when Josi broke her shoulder in a riding accident. It took six months for the then-10-year-old to completely heal. While she recuperated, Josi continued roping, practicing on goats she bought with birthday money.

The typical youth rodeo involves barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying and breakaway roping, Josi explained.

Knowing how much joy Josi derives from competing, Helmick is determined to set her own worries aside and support her child.

“We don’t know the future; she could be in a wheelchair 10 years from now,” Helmick said. “We just pray for the best. We let her ride while she’s able to ride.”

Besides, Helmick said, “It’s not about winning; it’s about having fun.”

Josi nodded in agreement as she tucked away nearly half-a-dozen championship belt buckles she has won in various rodeos over the past several years. Asked if the winning matters a little bit, too, Josi’s only answer was a small smile.

It’s the kind of modest reaction one would expect from a competitor, a winner and a survivor like Josi Davis.

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