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A rodeo queen reflects on the hard ride back after losing her mom to cancer.

MISS RODEO LAKESIDE 2011 appears so calm and settled. Watch as Elisa Swenson, blonde hair streaming out from under a white cowboy hat, gazes into the camera and does an animated-yet-composed promotional video for next year’s rodeo.

This composed 24-year-old hadn’t always been so confident. When Elisa was four, her mom, Viola, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years later, doctors thought Viola had been cured. Things were looking up. Then they found cysts in her liver.

Elisa was 10 when her mom died. Sadness, depression and darkness ensued.

To help his daughter get over her grief, Thomas Swenson enrolled Elisa in the Raintree horse camp in Julian.

It is what brought a light back into her life, she says.

Today, Swenson can look back and matter-of-factly explain how she re-emerged from the depression.

“You know, my mom had been sick for my whole life, and I didn’t know what she had — to me it was like the common cold,” she says.

“People try to pull you out of your grief. But I think it’s important to take time to be sad. Let the process take place, and let yourself heal. Then, you can channel that energy. In my case, my energy was channeled by a horse.”

Elisa loves to spend time riding her horse, Jane, around Rancho Peñasquitos, and talks excitedly about everything associated with the equestrian sports.

Her year as Miss Rodeo Lakeside was life changing.

“It’s made me more confident, and made me a better public speaker,” she says. “And it’s actually helped me in the way I choose relationships.”

Elisa also credits the lingering words of her mom with helping her deal with life lessons. When she knew she was dying, Viola wrote a book of poems called Whispers From God. Two poems were aimed directly at her daughter: “Elisa’s Poem” and “My Budding Sleeping Beauty.”

Referring again to her choices in relationships, Elisa says the poems helped her “get it.” She acknowledges what many 20-somethings (and some folks in general) don’t comprehend: “Sometimes it takes awhile before you learn to take a parent’s advice.”

Looking forward, Elisa hopes to someday be able to mentor other young survivors whose parents were taken by cancer.

“The plan is to encourage kids to get involved with a hobby,” she says. “Horses saved me. But whether its horses or soccer, or whatever it is, putting the healing effort in is what makes the difference.”


Photo caption: Elisa Swenson as Miss Rodeo Lakeside 2011

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