Tomi Thomas could spend all day with horses.
Riding them, combing them, caring for them, feeding them — she loves horses just as much as she loves competing with them at rodeos.
"I'm very competitive, I like speed and, of course, I love horses," the 18-year-old Spring Hill resident said. "So all of those combined put me at the races. It's something I have to be addicted to."
Thomas, who has been riding since she was 2, competes in barrel racing. She weaves one of her six horses at top speed through a clover-leaf-shaped track.
Last month, she and her horse Junebug won the national title at the National Barrel Horse Association 2009 Youth World Championships in Jackson, Miss.
She trained and exercised the horses "every single day since January for it," she said with a laugh. "It was the biggest award I've gotten so far."
She was awarded a horse trailer, three belt buckles, a saddle, a champion jacket and cash. Quite the haul for the petite rider who was trained by her mother and named after her late father.
Tommy Thomas died shortly before she was born after the main valve leading to his heart collapsed. Tomi Thomas' mother, Barbara, said she decided to name her only daughter after her late husband, "the good ol' country boy everyone loved."
"Tomi is the only thing I have left of him," Barbara said. "And it was a struggle being a single mom. I could tell that (horse racing) was something she was going to be passionate about, so financially, sometimes I had to have two jobs so Tomi could do this.
"It was definitely worth it."
Up until about two years ago, it was just Barbara and Tomi. Barbara Thomas is now engaged to someone who is also into horse riding, but Tomi Thomas' main coach was always her mom.
"She's never about to criticize me, but she's honest with me," Thomas said. "She's not hurting my feelings, but it's helping how I ride and I can fix something if I'm doing something wrong."
Thomas' passion for horses and the races has always stood out. Even when she's not in a saddle, she's smiling at the races, ready for whatever may happen.
"I think she's really dedicated to her horses and races — it really means something to her," said Linda Jones, the Florida state director of the National Barrel Horse Association. "It's an addiction for people who get into it and buckle down and really ride. Girls and horses are always drawn to each other, and Tomi's a lot like any other barrel racer."
Barbara Thomas never had to push her daughter into riding. She took to it so naturally, as any third-generation rider would, that most believe she could ride a camel to a national championship.
"We all joke that she could ride the hair off the horse," her mother said with a laugh. "She wants to be a strong rider and loves what she's doing. Whatever we put her on, she can ride, and riding is not something everyone can do well."
Thomas is now off to college at Pasco-Hernando Community College. She would like to become a nurse. And in a way, she has plenty of training from caring for horses all these years.
"Training horses can be so hard, especially when they're babies," she said. "They can be on one day and off the next. Sometimes you can feel like, 'Did I even teach you anything the other day?'
"But I'm always going to keep riding. It may be more a struggle (to squeeze it in), but I'm always going to ride. I love to."
Community Sports Editor Mike Camunas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 544-1771.