90-Year-Old Calf Roper Larry Swanson is Living His Best Life.
Larry swanson calf roping
90-year-old Larry Swanson competing at the 2022 Senior Pro Rodeo Association Finals in Buckeye, Arizona. | 4S Photography

Some guys rope all their lives, putting decades into honing the craft of tie down roping. It requires passion and determination.

Larry Swanson has both in spades.

What he didn’t have, at least for the first half of his life, was resources, namely, time and money.  Now that he does, Swanson is inspiring folks with his zeal for the sport, still in the saddle at age 90.

Yep, that’s right, Swanson just roped in the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association (NSPRA) Finals in Buckeye, Arizona on November 3-5, 2022 just a few days shy of his 90th birthday.

Though he was interested in rodeo from an early age, opportunities to compete were slim early on for Swanson.

“I was always interested in rodeo,” Swanson said on November 15, celebrating his 90th birthday by doing evening chores on his farm in Colon, Nebraska, just as he’s done for decades.

His early interest was bolstered by a high school friend a few years older who went on to college and joined the rodeo team there. He invited Swanson to team practices and got him entered in the bareback riding a few times.

“I tried to compete in bull riding, but I didn’t like that,” he added with a chuckle, a timed eventer at heart from the beginning.

Upon graduation, Swanson joined the Air Force. He served four years, two spent in Japan as an intercept radio operator from 1954-1956 in the wake of the Korean War. When he left the service in 1957, he returned to his farm in Nebraska and married his wife Jean, but Swanson still didn’t get his shot to hit the rodeo road.

“I bought a horse when I got out of the service to try calf roping, but I sold him a year later,” Swanson said. “I couldn’t afford to go anywhere anyway.”

Soon raising their four children, sons Roger and Russell and daughters Diane (Fromm) and Lisa (Egle), Swanson kept his head down working the farm, where he produced corn and soy beans, providing for his family.

Eventually, the Swansons did buy horses and go rodeoing, but instead of Larry in the saddle, it was his children who got to fulfill their competitive fires in 4-H and youth rodeos.

“Lisa and Russell both college rodeoed, and Roger is a good roper, but he’s farming now and has no time to go,” Swanson noted. Today, he’s also got grandkids in the sport, twin girls who compete in the youth rodeo in Missouri, part of a clan that includes seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Though unable to compete himself at the time, Swanson stayed involved in the sport by serving as a 4-H horse leader for a decade. His impact on the youth of the area is notable when comments on a social media post of him roping at the 2022 NSPRA Finals are considered—though no longer kids, his former 4-H members quickly pointed out that Swanson was an inspiration long before he hit the arena competitively.

Swanson kept his rodeo fire burning through his association with the Wahoo (Neb.) Saddle Club. A member since his junior high days, he eventually became the president of their annual rodeo, a position he held for 13 years which gave him the chance to participate in rodeo from the production side of the sport.

Larry Swanson calf roping
Larry Swanson runs down the rope to tie a calf at the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association Finals in Buckeye, Arizona, in November 2022. | 4S Photography

The competitive opportunity he’d craved finally came his way thanks to the emergence of the new organization for older rodeo athletes, the National Old Timers’ Rodeo Association (now the NSPRA). Swanson’s friend RB Warren encouraged him to look into the group which catered to those rodeo competitors over the age of 40.

“They had a rodeo in Hyannis, Nebraska and I think it was the second year of the Association,” Swanson said of his first outing with the group. While many of his NSPRA peers had been rodeoing since their junior rodeo days, Swanson was enjoying his first real taste of rodeo life.

While Swanson was soon traveling to Wyoming as well as hitting the NSPRA’s Nebraska offerings, he was still unable to travel far due to commitments on the farm amongst others. It wasn’t until he stepped down as President of the Wahoo Saddle Club in 2004 that Swanson was able to rodeo harder.

His wife Jean has been along for the ride, supporting her husband’s aspirations to go roping but after several years of spectating, she provided the impetus for him to suddenly be an All Around contender.

“We were in Douglas, Wyoming,” Swanson remembered, noting that both he and Jean were in their 60’s at that point. “She told me she wouldn’t mind trying the ribbon roping once.”

Swanson immediately called the rodeo office and got Jean her permit and entered them at the next four rodeos.

“Remember she said she wanted to try it once,” he said wryly. “Well I only roped one of those four calves so she got to try it once!”

Luckily, Jean didn’t quit on her husband. One of Swanson’s favorite memories came at the Jackson, Wyoming event which was two separate rodeos. The Swansons earned a buckle for the highest finish over the two days.

“That was really fun, we didn’t know they were giving them,” he said. “I was riding a pretty good horse back then.”

Noting he was hauling “two horses, two dogs and one woman,” Swanson and Jean went on to their best finish in 2007, winning second in the average at the NSPRA Finals to land third in the World standings.

“We really enjoyed it,” he said.

After more than 60 years married, Jean passed away in April 2019.

Swanson continues to pluck along the NSPRA rodeo trail and even takes on a few Ultimate Calf Roping (UCR) events when they’re close enough. The UCRs create classes based on ability, allowing ropers to compete against those of similar skill level.

“I win a check now and then,” he said. “Just enough to tease me back and make me think I can win now and then.”

Swanson has competed off and on at the NSPRA Finals over the years and remembers his first qualification coming in 1996 when the event was held in Reno, Nevada.

“I was going with RB and Jesse Marshall, who was a team roper, and I think I finished 27th that year and they took the top 30,” he said. Swanson was on the fence about the long trip West given his other commitments at home at the time. “They talked me into going, told me it wasn’t that easy to qualify so I better go.”

Swanson remembers a number of pro ropers were entered that year including Bob Ragsdale, Gene McLaughlin and the Camarillos.

“I ended up ninth and they paid six,” Swanson laughed. “But I was happy with my roping, I caught all my calves.”

Larry Swanson
Larry Swanson smiles after making a run at the NSPRA Finals | 4S Photography

Today, Swanson is mostly retired from farming, though he still helps with the annual harvest, driving one of the trucks to haul the grain. His love for roping hasn’t waned, though he doesn’t get to practice at home as much as he’d like.

“At the Senior Pro Rodeos, they usually use cross-bred calves with some Jersey. They’re old man friendly,” he joked. “Those are hard to find in my part of the country. Those beef calves are a little hard on me.”

For horsepower, he borrows one from his son, a 17-year old gelding called Woody.

“I’m wasting a good horse, a younger and quicker guy ought to have him,” Swanson said with a good dose of self-deprecating humor. Like many of the horses he has owned over the years, Swanson bought Woody very young and handled the training himself.

“We never had a broke horse except for one we bought for my daughter for barrel racing,” he said. “And after she retired her, we raised six colts out of her.”

At his most recent NSPRA Finals, Swanson competed in the NSPRA’s “Super Senior” division, the 68+ tie-down roping and men’s breakaway, which is limiting only to those 65 and older. While he didn’t have the Finals he hoped for, he finished seventh in the tie-down roping.

Swanson perseverance to compete in the sport he loves provides inspiration—as evidenced by the widely shared photo of him roping in Buckeye this year, but he just sees it as something he likes to do and something at which he strives to continue to improve.

One added benefit of the NSPRA Finals’ location in Arizona was the chance to see old friends, probably one of Swanson’s favorite perks of his later in life rodeo career.

“I’ve met a lot of good people, made some dear friends,” Swanson said.