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No participation trophies in showing pigs

When Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison announced on Instagram that he was returning his children’s sport participation trophies, it sparked a heated national debate. He simply stated “he wants his sons to earn what they get, not just be given anything.”

Ironically, as this story grabbed national attention across all media outlets, I was spending time with children of all ages in the hog barns at the Illinois State Fair who were living example of Harrison’s words. Unfortunately, just like the football field not every livestock exhibitor can capture the trophy. However, many hours, sweat and tears have been shed trying to get a small piece of the champion pie.

For those fortunate enough to battle it out in the spotlight, they earned their banner win last week as they competed for the Grand Champion honors in the large coliseum on Saturday evening in front of a packed house in the middle of the Illinois State Fair. As the temperature in the coliseum felt like 100 degrees in the shade, the Illinois Jr. swine judges told the barrow exhibitors they earned their sweat today.

While every child who participates in competition wants to win, many will not. For the kids in the ring that stand behind the winner, showing pigs is more than making it to the backdrop and taking home the banners. It is the lessons you gather along the way. I had chance to visit with several hog exhibitors who wore their passion on their sleeve.

Hard work pays off

Meet Colt Stremsterfer. At the young age of 8 years old he drives his barrow like a boss through the ring, always presenting his hog with full enthusiasm until he exits the ring. He comes from a long line of hog farmers and enjoys exhibiting pigs the family has bred and raised.  Stremsterfer says "it is fun to show pigs and to learn about pigs, livestock and farming." Although it is hard work, he already knows at a young age that hard work pays off. There is no doubt this young Stremsterfer will be raising pigs after his junior show career ends.

Forming a bond

Clearly, 10-year-old Preston Rhode has spent many hours with his show pigs. Watching him prepare his pigs for the showring, the pigs fight for his attention. The bond between animal and pig is not developed over night. Rhode says beyond the hours he spent feeding his livestock he also checked his pigs every hour to make sure they did not overheat on a hot summer day. Although he is not always successful in winning the blue ribbon, he says "showing pigs has taught me to be responsible and respect others".

Driving the passion

It is the intensity of driving her pig in the ring that fuels college freshman Erica Harrell. She has passionately shown livestock from a young age. Harrell spends her summer working livestock and there is really no time for anything else. After completing morning chores at her house, she makes the long drive to work her show cattle, then returns to walk and feed her pigs. Harrell says "showing pigs is in her blood". Her passion and dedication for her show pigs is clear as she interacts with her animals in and out of the ring.

Cherish the win

For college sophomore Amy Heberling, showing livestock is not about winning. She says it is about the time and effort you put forth to reach your goals. If you walked out of that show ring and did everything you could to allow this pig to have its best chance, then the job is complete. Heberling says "it is also about the friendship and contacts you make, some of my best friends and ‘adopted families' are my show friends".

This year her hard work and long hours helped her gilt reach its full potential, winning a banner at the state fair for the first time since she began showing pigs at age 11. With a smile on her face, she speaks of her win: “It was so exciting. When I called my grandpa after the show he was so excited he said he had a tear in his eye and was proud of me.”

Every one of these kids credited family members and friends for supporting and mentoring through their showing pig journeys. Like Harrison’s kids, they know at the end of the day that hard work will also reap rewards that do not come in the form of ribbon, trophy or banner.

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