Cutting It Close

large-1When Hilary Gietzen finished second in the 2012 North American Sheep Shearing Challenge (NASSC), he was a bit disappointed, but certainly not defeated. Motivated by his near victory, he was determined to make the outcome at the 2013 NASSC final at the Calgary Stampede a better one. Gietzen set off in his single engine Mooney airplane from his home in Minot, North Dakota, on a three-hour trip to Calgary, Alberta. On a trip in which his wife would normally accompany him, this time he rode solo. Even as floodwaters receded from Calgary, he safely landed his plane with one goal in mind: first place.

As a full-time sheep shearer for more than 30 years (he also works as an apprentice at Huizenga Electric in Minot), Gietzen tried to approach competition days like any other workday. But as he entered the arena on the morning of the first day of competition, he had a feeling that this competition would be one to remember.

With more than 30 professionals in the field, Gietzen knew his speed would have to be swift and his workmanship sharp. After all, in his 50s, he was one of the oldest competitors by about 15 to 20 years.

After each round, competitors were scored by a combination of time and workmanship, and then ranked. Early on, Gietzen quickly got a good feel of which combs and patterns were working best on the Canadian sheep and how the judges were scoring. At this event, the judges were valuing workmanship over speed, which played right into Gietzen’s favor. He was quick, but his workmanship was what set him apart.

Every two hours or so, Gietzen was shearing groups of three or four sheep at a rapid pace of one-and-a-half minutes per sheep. He was off to a great start and remained in the top eight throughout the day, reaching as high as second.

On the second and final day of competition, Gietzen entered the arena in the morning feeling confident. He was in the top group of shearers, but not leading, and it was just where he wanted to be – escaping the pressure that comes with holding on to first place. With the field narrowing, Gietzen was holding steady, ranked second going into the semifinals. He and three competitors – a Canadian and two Australians – were now challenged to shear eight sheep per round. Despite the amount of physical stamina and mental focus it takes to shear, Gietzen made it look easy. Every competitor was pushing their hardest for a chance at the title, but once again Gietzen held his rank in second place and earned a spot in the final.

In the final, Gietzen would go head-to-head with a significantly younger Australian man. It was an interesting contrast in styles as the final began, and the round was over in a little more than 12 minutes. Gietzen heard each time a gate opened on his competitor’s side and knew that he was slightly behind in time, but it didn’t bother him – he felt that he had done what he needed to in order to win. The judges deliberated, then announced that Gietzen’s instincts were correct – he had won the championship! With cheers from a crowd of more than 200, Gietzen felt redeemed and proudly accepted the championship award.

For Gietzen, the validation of being a champion made the trip worth it. He celebrated that evening with a banquet-style meal with his fellow competitors, but was quick to head back to Minot the next day. After all, there were more sheep to be sheared at home.