Among a collection of gleaming belt buckles, one shines a little brighter for Tori Sue Olson.
It’s proof she survived.
On that silver buckle, embossed in gold and black letters, are these words:
NBHA World Championships Finalist.
Thirty letters Tori never thought she’d live to see, let alone see used to describe her.
It was unthinkable 10 years ago when she fell into the grip of cocaine addiction.
It was unthinkable three years ago when her horse and partner, Flit the Leader, was on the verge of being euthanized after suffering a devastating injury.
And it was unthinkable in January when her mentor, and the only man who had ever been a father to her, died and threw her life into chaos again.
Through all the tumult and the heartbreak, Tori has held on to one constant: her innate bond with horses.
They keep her safe. They keep her alive.
“I found refuge with the horses,” she said. “If I was out with horses, I was safe.”
As an infant, Tori sat in the saddle in front of her mother until she was old enough to ride by herself. She first rode a pony at 3 years old and first galloped a year later.
Tori’s parents divorced when she was young, and trips to her grandparents’ farm to spend time with their horses were brief moments of happiness during an otherwise unpleasant childhood. There was physical abuse—spankings that “went too far.” She bounced from school to school while living with her mother. She fell out of contact with her father and siblings.
She felt rejected, abandoned, unloved and unwanted.
But there’s hope in this story, too.
It’s the story of a 53-year-old burnout on a horse with a broken hip—and how the pair forged an unlikely path to barrel racing’s biggest event.
Tori never had any formal horseback riding or barrel-racing training—nothing like what young riders have access to now. She learned through trial and error, which she said has led to many bruises and bloody knees over the course of her riding career. She got into barrel racing as a teenager and was 23 when she bought her first barrel-racing horse.
By then, she had been estranged from her family for years. She had a son, Ricky, and got more involved in the competitive rodeo scene, traveling to compete in small shows across southern Wisconsin.
After riding for several years, her racing career faded, replaced by vices that have gripped so many across the country. Years of feeling neglected had taken their toll, and one of her best friends, Tracy Fay (Hadden), died in a car crash.
Tori went out partying, hoping alcohol and drugs could wash away her pain.
Her drug of choice was cocaine. She still thanks God she never made the next step to meth or an opioid such as heroin.
“I just stopped caring for myself,” Tori said. “I didn’t feel pain. I didn’t feel sorrow.
“It takes that away.”
Cocaine nearly did take everything from Tori. Her son went north to live with his father. Her daughter, Tiffany, went to a special-needs home in Janesville. Tori was homeless for a time and sometimes crashed at the home of Ida Ransom, one of the few people she could call a close friend. The two met while working at Vegas Gentlemen’s Club in Darien.
“I had used cocaine with her initially,” Ida said. “We were drinking quite a bit during the day. A bump of cocaine would keep you going. When she took it to another level, I didn’t go.”
Ida tried several times to deter Tori’s drug use. Tori later wrote she “was not ready” at the time. On some days Tori had nothing. She was broke and emotionally spent.
“I literally didn’t have anywhere to go,” Tori said. “I had no money. I had a storage unit of whatever I had left of my life belongings.”
It took several tries, but she eventually checked into Janesville AlcoCare, an inpatient drug rehab center. There she faced some harsh realities.
“It was hard to hear what I was hearing,” Tori said. “I said, ‘Now lock the doors, and don’t let me leave.’”
After a 30-day stay at AlcoCare, she moved to a secondary house and spent two months there. She earned cellphone and car privileges and began preparing for life after rehab.
“She had to go through all that loss to find herself and to find what she’s really made of,” Ida said.
Tori was released from rehab on a Friday and started working the next day. She got her GED and earned credits at UW-Rock County.
She was even able to reconnect with her sister, Angela, and her father, Roger, after not speaking to them for many years.
“She did it for her,” Angela said of Tori’s successful rehab. “She thought about her children, so she made a decision. She knew she wanted to be more than what she witnessed growing up.”
Tori wanted to rededicate herself to barrel racing, too.
Tori met Flit the Leader—Leader for short—in February 2013. She had to have her horse, Scarlet, euthanized and wanted to find a barrel-racing horse that wouldn’t have to be trained from scratch. The tall bay fit the profile. Tori brought Leader back from Florida and began conditioning him.
The duo found success on the District 02 circuit in southern Wisconsin. Tori rode Leader at the state finals at Madison’s Alliant Energy Center in August 2014.
Then, during a pole-bending event at a rodeo in Elkhorn in September, Leader stopped while rounding the halfway turn. Tori could see fear flash across his eyes.
Leader trembled. The crowd went silent.
His injury—a fracture of the pelvis in his right hind leg—was especially concerning because it involved the hip joint. According to a medical report obtained by The Gazette, University of Wisconsin veterinarians expected Leader to develop osteoarthritis and other chronic limb problems. He would live in constant pain. An athletic career was out of the question.
Tori remembers when UW doctors delivered the news. She feared the worst—that Leader would have to be euthanized.
“They suggested that I put him down,” Tori said. “They gave me a moment alone with Leader in the hospital stall up there … to basically say goodbye.”
Tori said Leader’s eyes met hers.
“I felt him tell me, ‘I won’t give up if you won’t give up,’” Tori said.
She ran out of the barn and told the stunned veterinarians she was going to take Leader home to begin rehab.
A personal friend, Tod Daniel, let Tori keep Leader and her other horses at his rural Janesville house, which had a large barn and space for the horses to run. Tori referred to it as “the hospital.”
Leader was confined to his stall for the first few months of his rehab. Tori would take her phone, a book and a blanket and sit with him for several hours each day, even in the dead of winter. She would talk to him, and he would tousle her hair while she read.
By March, his pelvis had calcified. Veterinarians said he could be hand-walked to the end of the barn and back. So Tori led Leader back and forth for several weeks until the vets said she could walk him to the end of the driveway.
By April, vets said Tori could start ponying Leader—leading him while mounted on another horse—around the pasture.
Leader, though, had had enough of walking. He broke away the first time Tori tried to pony him. He charged around the field, bucking and kicking, while Tori watched in horror. She knew that if he rebroke his hip, there would be no saving him again. She went back to the barn and prepared to call the vets when Leader returned. He stopped in the doorway, nostrils flared, and stared at Tori.
“He was telling me, ‘Screw you. Don’t leave me in a stall. I want out,’” she said.
The vets were amazed when Tori told them what happened. They said he was ready to be saddled and ridden again.
After several months of conditioning, Tori and Leader returned to racing in August at Showtime Arena in Deerfield.
Tod Daniel, a trial attorney prior to retirement, raised and raced horses as a hobby. Naturally, he and Tori had plenty to talk about. They became good friends.
Tori came to see Tod as a father figure she never really had growing up. She said he was an intelligent and down-to-earth man, and he helped her rebuild her racing career, even letting her take his horse carrier—Leader was too tall for the carrier Tori owned—to rodeos.
He supported and encouraged her. He saw what she was capable of.
While Tori and Leader continued to travel for races, Tod was weakening. He had been diagnosed with melanoma—skin cancer—a few years before. Meanwhile, Tori and Leader clinched a berth at the world championships by winning the Wisconsin Second Division District 02 Open championship.
Tod died Jan. 21, 2017. His death threatened to overturn the life Tori had carefully reassembled in the years after drug rehab.
“This was someone who came in—in just a few short years—he showed me what it was like to have a father,” Tori said.
Tod’s children wanted to sell his property, so Tori would have to find a new place for her horses. She couldn’t keep them at her home in Janesville, and rent anywhere else was almost certainly going to be out of her budget.
She picked up everything and moved the horses to a farm outside Footville, but the horses hated it there. Tori hated it there.
Life started to crush her again.
Tori remembers driving home one night. She began crying so hard her glasses fogged up, and she had to pull over to the side of the road. She looked to the sky for answers. Why did she make it this far, only to be derailed again by events out of her control?
“I cried because my world as I knew it was done,” Tori said. “I just felt like my world was crumbling all around me. I’m trying to move forward and cope with everything in a productive way without falling apart.”
She was still mourning Tod and trying to keep her racing career afloat.
A couple in Palmyra heard about Tori’s situation and invited her to come see their farmhouse. They gave her a deal on rent, and the property had everything her horses would need.
Finally, Tori caught a break.
Still, Tori had to scrape together the money to make the 1,800-mile round trip to Perry, Georgia, for the National Barrel Horse Association World Championships, which opened Oct. 28.
Friends donated what they could, and a Palmyra bar held a fundraiser. Tori had enough to make the trip.
The World Championships bring together riders from across the globe. Some arrived with million-dollar RVs and horse trailers. Some rode valuable horses bred specifically for barrel racing.
Tori, the backyard barrel racer, said she pulled in with “a tin can with a mattress in it.”
She wasn’t nervous about competing. This was a dream come true, and regardless of the outcome, she had made it to her sport’s highest level.
None of Tori’s three senior division rides were fast enough to advance her to the second round. Her first ride in the open division wasn’t fast enough, either. She had one chance left—one last ride with Leader.
The result was a 14th place finish in the fourth division. They advanced to the finals.
Tori and Leader finished 33rd in the third division during the finals. A 53-year-old burnout on a horse with a broken hip.
“I lived it, and I still have a hard time believing it,” Tori said. “The buckle is right there; the horse is right there. I went to Perry, Georgia.”
Others might find it hard to believe, too.
But there’s a gleaming silver belt buckle to prove it was all real.
This story has been updated to correct the starting date of the NBHA World Championships.
With ARISE in full swing, the controversial Monterey Dam decision behind them and the sale of the former General Motors property finalized, Janesville City Council members are looking ahead to what they might accomplish next year.
Here are issues the council wants to address in 2018 (The Gazette was unable to reach council members Sue Conley and Jim Farrell before press time).
Marklein ran for city council on the principle of not concentrating on any specific issue.
Instead, he evaluates issues as they’re presented and makes the best decisions he can for Janesville. Marklein wants to carry that pledge into 2018, he said.
“Bring it in front of me, and I will do my absolute best to listen to all sides and make a decision that I think will move the city forward,” Marklein said. “That’s what you have to do on the council, in my opinion.”
The city as a whole is more important than any specific part or issue, he said.
Without naming specific items to accomplish, Gruber would like the council to continue its momentum from 2017.
“If you look at what we’ve accomplished in the last two to three years, it’s really remarkable for this city,” Gruber said. “It speaks volumes about the positive things happening in the community.”
Throughout the year, the council helped bring in and approve hundreds of family-supporting jobs and retained many businesses in the area. The GM site was sold, and there are promises of redevelopment, growth and a new beginning, Gruber said.
“We’ve got a lot going for us right now, and my hope and prayer is we can continue that momentum,” he said.
Jorgensen would like to hold a “south-side summit” to address the “food desert” in that part of town.
Last month, the Pick ‘n Save on Center Avenue closed. Some complained this left them with few nearby options for grocery shopping.
Jorgensen said that’s “unacceptable.” He and Marklein would like to organize a listening session to gather input from south-side residents and business owners on how the city might help the area, Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen also would like to bring in more family-supporting jobs—ones that pay more than minimum wage.
“I really want to focus on getting those jobs back,” he said.
The council’s job is not to concentrate on specific issues, but it’s tough not to be excited for what’s next at the former General Motors property, Wolfe said.
“It’s a heck of a lot of acreage right in the middle of our community, and I’m just really excited that we’re going to see something happening there because its potential is huge,” he said.
It’s unclear to what extent the city council will be involved with the property’s development, but it could include approving road construction and other infrastructure or approving deals to entice developers, Wolfe said.
He hopes the property eventually houses several entities, not just one like General Motors before. He said he would be happy to be on a subcommittee focused on the property’s development.
Whatever businesses move in will create jobs, and Janesville needs more housing. The council could help with that through rezoning and approving residential developments, Wolfe said.
Williams envisions a slew of issues the city will address in 2018.
Besides the council’s involvement with the former General Motors property, the council will have to make sure upcoming Milwaukee Street work, including the bridge replacement, is handled correctly, Williams said.
The city will soon have two hotels coming in, including one downtown that will replace a public parking lot. The council will have to consider how these developments will work with traffic and existing parking, which is a new concern for downtown, Williams said.
“I guess it’s a good problem to have if it’s getting busy enough that it seems there’s not enough parking spaces,” he said.
The Interstate 90/39 expansion and how that affects Janesville residents is a concern, especially as ramps and city roads are closed to accommodate the work, Williams said.
China has now assumed the mantle of fighting climate change, a global crusade that the United States once led. Russia has taken over Syrian peace talks, also once the purview of the American administration, whose officials Moscow recently deigned to invite to negotiations only as observers.
France and Germany are often now the countries that fellow members of NATO look to after President Donald Trump wavered on how supportive his administration would be toward the North Atlantic alliance.
And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S., once the only mediator all sides would accept, has found itself isolated after Trump’s decision to declare that the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In his wide-ranging speech on national security last week, Trump highlighted what he called the broadening of U.S. influence throughout the world.
But one year into his presidency, many international leaders, diplomats and foreign policy experts argue that he has reduced U.S. influence or altered it in ways that are less constructive. On a range of policy issues, Trump has taken positions that disqualified the United States from the debate or rendered it irrelevant, these critics say.
Even in countries that have earned Trump’s praise, such as India, there is concern about Trump’s unpredictability—will he be a reliable partner?—and what many overseas view as his isolationism.
“The president can and does turn things inside out,” said Manoj Joshi, a scholar at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “So the chances that the U.S. works along a coherent and credible national security strategy are not very high.”
As the U.S. recedes, other powers including China, Russia and Iran are eagerly stepping into the void.
One significant issue is the visible gap between the president and many of his top national security advisers.
Trump’s national security speech was intended to explain to the public a 70-page strategy document that the administration developed. But on key issues, Trump’s speech and the document diverged.
The speech, for example, included generally favorable rhetoric about Russia and China. The strategy document listed the two governments as competitors, accused the Russians of using “subversion” as a tactic and said that countering both rival powers was necessary.
Russia reacted angrily: America continues to evince “its aversion to a multipolar world,” said President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
At the same time, Trump’s refusal to overtly criticize Russia, some diplomats say, has emboldened Putin in his military actions in Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels are battling a pro-West government in Kiev.
Kurt Volker, the administration’s special envoy for Ukraine, said that some of the worst fighting since February took place over the last two weeks, with numerous civilian casualties. Volker accused Russia of “massive” cease-fire violations.
Nicholas Burns, who served as a senior American diplomat under Republican and Democratic administrations, said the administration’s strategy was riddled with contradictions that have left the U.S. ineffective.
Trump “needs a strong State Department to implement” its strategy, he said. “Instead, State and the foreign service are being weakened and often sidelined.”
Trump’s “policy of the last 12 months is a radical departure from every president since WWII,” Burns said in an interview. “Trump is weak on NATO, Russia, trade, climate, diplomacy. The U.S. is declining as a global leader.”
The most recent example of U.S. isolation came with Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move delighted many Israelis but angered Palestinians and reversed decades of international consensus.
On Thursday, an overwhelming majority of the U.N. General Assembly, including many U.S. allies, voted to demand the U.S. rescind the decision.
For the last quarter-century, successive U.S. governments have held themselves up as an “honest broker” in mediating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump insisted he is not giving up on a peace deal, but most parties involved interpreted his announcement as clearly siding with Israel.
“From now on, it is out of the question for a biased United States to be a mediator between Israel and Palestine,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a summit of more than 50 Muslim countries that he hosted in Istanbul. “That period is over.”
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said that if a peace deal is to be made now, “it won’t be from American policy.”
“Trump took himself and the administration out of the peace process for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Trump had boasted of his ability to convene Muslim leaders during his trip to Saudi Arabia in May, but that would seem far less possible today. In Jordan, arguably Washington’s closest Arab ally in the Middle East, government-controlled television has started 24-hour broadcasts of invitations to follow a Twitter account whose hashtag roughly translates as “Jerusalem is ours … our Arabness.”
Regional leaders and analysts also say that for all of Trump’s tough rhetoric, they see few concrete steps by the U.S. to counter Iran’s steady expansion of its military, economic and political influence, a perception that Iranian leaders are happy to exploit.
“Trump is ranting and making empty threats,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, a conservative Iranian politician with close ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Russia, China and Iran are gaining ground in the Middle East, and America is losing ground and influence.”
That view is also shared by Iranian moderates, with whom the Obama administration thought it could work.
“The reality on the ground in the Middle East is that the American administration has failed to form an efficient coalition against its self-proclaimed enemies,” said Nader Karimi Juni, an independent Iranian analyst who writes for reformist dailies and magazines.
“Now Russia is celebrating its victory in Syria, and America is watching as an onlooker,” Juni said.
In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. under Trump has succeeded in helping its allies drive Islamic State militants out of their strongholds. But Washington has opted to take a back seat in the other conflicts roiling the two countries.
Another round of recent U.N.-mediated and U.S.-backed peace talks on Syria wrapped up in Geneva without any progress. Instead, a Russia-led process is gaining traction.
Even some longtime opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad quietly acknowledge that Sochi, the Black Sea resort where Russia aims to convene a “Syrian people’s congress” next year, and not Geneva, will be the focus of efforts to bring an end to the war.
Trump has won praise in parts of South Asia, a region his team has re-dubbed the “Indo-Pacific” and where it is favoring India and Afghanistan over Pakistan. The administration has asked Congress for $350 million in aid to Pakistan for 2018, not quite one-tenth the amount Washington provided five years ago.
Afghan officials say they are encouraged by Trump’s renewed pressure on neighboring Pakistan to take “decisive action” to stop militant groups operating from its soil.
“Our partnership, which reflects a renewed U.S. commitment, will set the conditions to end the war and finally bringing peace to Afghanistan,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement.
But even there, officials say they worry that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric will strengthen China’s status as a power broker.
China has also benefited from Trump’s refusal to join other nations to work against climate change. Even as Trump removed climate change from the list of threats menacing the United States, China announced it would begin phasing in an ambitious program to curb carbon emissions by establishing the world’s largest market for trading emissions permits.