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For Ace Elegante, in life, as in rodeo, it’s all about getting back on the horse

Eighteen-year-old Ace Elegante has spent this week sleeping in the living quarters of a horse trailer with his dad Tony, his mom Brandy, his older sister Kiara, his younger brother Dylan and younger sister Kambree. Is it cramped? You bet. Is there any chance for privacy? None. Is using the bathroom ridiculously difficult? Absolutely.

Is Ace going to be glad when it’s over?

Heck no. He’d be fine if it never ended.

What’s been happening this week at the Wasatch County Events Complex is nothing short of life finally dealing a fair hand to a kid who’s had more than his share of lousy ones. All his life, or as far back as memories can take him, Ace has dreamed of being a good enough cowboy to compete in the Utah High School Finals Rodeo, like his mom did back in the day; like his sister Kiara, who also went on to nationals in barrel racing.

But then harsh reality entered the picture, in the form of a very rare, very invasive genetic condition called Von Hippel-Lindau — VHL for short. A flaw in one specific gene in Ace’s vast genetic map triggers the periodic growth of tumors throughout his body. There is no known cure for VHL, it’s not something he can outlast and it’s likely stunted both his growth and his lifespan. 

Since he was 9 — when the condition was first diagnosed via a massive headache that would not go away — Ace has spent more time in hospitals than a dozen bad bull riders. He’s had five surgeries to remove a total of eight tumors, three from his eyes and five from his adrenal gland, including two this past February.

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Tony Elegante helps his son, Ace, sit up in bed after an adrenal gland removal procedure at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City on Feb. 17, 2023. Ace has had five surgeries to remove a total of eight tumors, three from his eyes and five from his adrenal gland, including two this past February. Ace has a very rare, very invasive genetic condition called Von Hippel-Lindau.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

After each lengthy recovery, he dusts himself off and literally gets back on his horse.

This routine has been going on since that first surgery when Ace was 9. He came home from the hospital trying to catch his breath, feeling like he’d been sucker-punched, and there to greet him was his grandfather — Brandy’s dad Troy Shinsel — with a good roping horse all saddled up and ready to go.

That’s how Ace’s rodeo career began.

His horse isn’t called Therapy — the actual name is Sid — but it could be. Riding and roping have become Ace’s antidote for what ails him.

“I don’t know what I’d do without a horse and rodeo,” Ace said a couple of weeks ago at his home in Bluffdale. “That’s where my heart lies, that’s who I am.”

By the time Ace got to Mountain Ridge High School he looked forward to competing on the Utah High School Rodeo Association circuit, the ultimate goal being to score enough points at rodeos along the way (his specialty is team roping) to qualify for the finals held every year in early June.

But there was always … something. Tumor surgeries and COVID-19 cost him pretty much his entire freshman year. As a sophomore, his horse died. As a junior, he had an uncanny knack for finishing 11th, where the top 10 qualify for the finals. Ace got real tired of saying, “Man, missed it by one.”

Then came this, his senior year, and fate finally smiled. No sooner had the circuit started last September than he and his partner, Riggun Barrow, placed fifth at a rodeo in Tooele. The flood gates were open. In spite of another interruption for tumor removal, he and Riggun added four more top 10 finishes throughout the season. It’s safe to say, based on what it took to get here, there was no one more excited about being in the finals than Ace.

If Hollywood were writing this, Ace and Riggun rode off Saturday night winning the whole shooting match. In reality, they successfully wrangled both their steers in the Wednesday and Friday prelims, but their times were just shy of qualifying for the short round. But, at that, the best was yet to come. In Saturday’s Jackpot — a side competition held exclusively for team ropers — they went out in style, placing eighth out of 188 teams. For that, Ace collected his first championship buckle.

Then, in a complete surprise, at the ending awards ceremony Ace was awarded the 2023 National High School Rodeo Association’s Spirit Award. Every year, the NHSRA honors one graduating senior in each state for “years of involvement, cheerful and positive attitude and encouragement, effort, passion, and dedication.”

No one checked those boxes better than Ace Elegante.

“It’s an award based on how you treat others and how you go about your business,” said Tony, Ace’s dad. “That put a cherry on top of his high school rodeo career. That left us all wiping away tears.

“Just the fact that he qualified (for finals) is a huge deal,” added Tony, who gives a shout out to the UHSRA for the “amazing support” the organization has given to the entire Elegante family these past four years. “Ace’s real superpower in fighting what he has to fight is being able to push it aside when he’s not dealing with it and live his life the way he wants to.

“He constantly wants to work hard at whatever he’s doing, specifically roping. He’s had a lot to deal with. It’s hard to say if the tumors have stunted his growth. But his soul is a thousand feet tall. His soul is gigantic.”

Adds Brandy Elegante, “He’s definitely a super positive kid. He’s always telling us it could be worse.”

To that, Ace, who definitely talks like a rodeo man, says, “I kinda look at my life like, yeah, I got a crappy hand, but as crappy as it is, it seems there’s kids who go through a lot worse than me; kids who deal with more crazy and severe diseases than I’ve got. As much of a curse as some people think this is, it’s more of a blessing to me because it’s made me stronger.”

Not to mention fearless in the saddle.

“There’s nothing a horse could do to me,” Ace says, wearing a good-natured cowboy grin, “that could ever compare to that other stuff I’ve had to go through.”

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