Even in a community this small, there are extraordinary individuals among us who’ve done amazing things that no one knows about. There are also individuals among us who suffer debilitating physical pain that—and this is no exaggeration—most people would find unbearable. On rare occasions, both of these things can be found in the same person.
One such person is Lori Shalberg, and her story is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit and the courage faith instills, the depth of the human heart and the power of believing in yourself and your dreams.
Lori has always been her own person walking her own path. When she was about five years old, she decided to be a track and field star. In a sense, the decision was inevitable. Growing up on a ranch with two older brothers, learning to run was a necessity for, if nothing else, surviving the teasing those older brothers sometimes dished out.
Always the determined athlete—even at five years old—Lori developed her own “track and field star training program”: ride a 3-wheeler a half mile down the road to the water tanks, place a handful of M&Ms at the half mile mark (track stars need “power food”), ride back to the starting line and then run to the M&Ms. “There must’ve been something to it because I won a lot of races in grade school,” she says in her dry, amused, somewhat deep-voiced drawl. “I competed in the high-jump, the 400, the 800… I always liked to stay with the pack until we rounded the last curve, and then I’d kick it and sprint to the finish line. But when it changed from a paced race to a sprint…well…” She laughs again, a little self-deprecatingly. “I thought I was running fast, but all the other kids were ahead of me. That’s when my track career pretty much ended.”
People who know her would most likely describe the “Lori Shalberg M&Ms-at-the-Half-Mile-Mark Track and Field Star Training Program” story as “classic Lori”, for it illustrates something that everyone—including Lori—will agree is true. Once she sets her sights on a goal, Lori’s bound and determined to reach it, regardless of the obstacles. And she never enters a competition unless she plans on winning.
Had Lori decided years ago to…say…pursue personal wealth, it’s likely that she’d be a rich woman today; her determination runs that deep. But goals like wealth and power hold no interest for her and never have. When asked what is important to her, she thinks for a moment. “Being patriotic. Being active. Helping people. Doing something that actually makes a difference.”
As her life has evolved over the years, each of those things have come into play. But how that happened comes later in the story.
GETTING TO DENVER BY 9am
Two mischievous older brothers, ranch work and self-created training programs like “Track and Field Star” (including M&Ms) must have had some merit because Lori became an accomplished athlete.
Lori hit her stride in junior high. The camaraderie found in playing volleyball, baseball and basketball gave Lori the opportunity to excel on her own while being part of something larger than herself. Her coach was Mr. G.L. Palmer. “He was probably the best teacher and coach I ever had,” she says. “He made you want to try as hard as you could and do your best. He really knew how to coach.” She briefly chuckles. “I knew where he and Mrs. Palmer lived in town, so I always made sure he’d see me run by. He was just one of those teachers that, when he was talking to you, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. He was that way with all the students.”
Lori excelled at basketball and became known as the best ball handler around. “Of course,” she adds, “it helped that I was about a foot taller than everybody else. That’s a pretty good advantage to have in junior high basketball.”
She was also a natural at baseball. Strong, tall and with a good arm, she was easily as good as the boys and, in many cases, better and decided to try out for the only baseball team in high school: the boys’ team. “I didn’t really think about it being anything special,” she recalls. “I just knew I could measure up.” Lori not only made the team, she made local history as the only girl on the boys’ baseball team, and not just at Plainview but all the opposing schools Plainview played, as well.
Personally, the decision was a little costly. Lori was so good that the coach put her (as a freshman) at first base, a position that had been held throughout high school by a senior who also happened to be Lori’s boyfriend. “That pretty much ended the relationship,” she adds.
One high point still sticks with her. During one of their games, she heard the radio announcer make the comment, “That Lori Shalberg throws as good as any one of those boys out there.” She stops for a brief moment, lost in the memory. “That was pretty cool,” she says, quietly.
Athletic ability wasn’t Lori’s only strength. She was a strong student and avid reader, which she still is, active in 4-H, helpful with others, worked hard at whatever she did. She was, in short, an exceptional teenager.
This awareness was brought home to her in a remarkable and completely unexpected way. Graduation was a few days away, and she’d just returned from the senior class trip to Florida. Her mother said she needed to get some sleep because they had to be in Denver by 9am. “Denver?” she asked. “Why do we have to be in Denver?”
“You’ve been given the Fred Steinmark award,” her mother, Carol, replied. One can only imagine how she felt giving her daughter the news.
The Fred Steinmark Award is the most prestigious award given to just one female athlete and one male athlete in the State of Colorado each year. The award is for superb athletic ability yet also acknowledges a graduating senior whose life mirrors those qualities the late Fred Steinmark embodied: faith, courage, heart and perseverance.
She’d been nominated for the award by none other than Mr. Palmer. No one knew at the time just how much Lori would embody everything that award represents.
THERE ARE QUEENS…AND THEN THERE ARE QUEENS
The years when Lori was around 5 or 6 years old were pretty important years when pretty important thoughts were bouncing around in her active little mind. One thought was particularly important.
It happened on a day when the Shalbergs were continuing with a tradition they’ve practiced for years: attending the opening ceremonies of the Sand and Sage Rodeo in Lamar, Colorado.
The Shalbergs are a ranching family who, at that time, still worked cattle on horseback. For Lori, it was nothing new to be around a large number of horses stomping, snorting and being fresh as horses tend to do when excited. After all, she’d been riding half her life already.
What was new—or at least new enough to catch her attention—was the site of Alma Beth Carrol, that year’s Miss Rodeo Colorado, riding at full gallop into the arena. That site grabbed ahold of the 6 year old’s attention and didn’t let go.
“It was the flag,” Lori says.
Alma Jean Carrol had ridden into the arena at full gallop carrying the American flag, streaming in all its stars-and-stripes glory. That sight stirred something so deep in the little girl’s heart that she turned to her father and said, “I’m going to do that one day.”
And, twelve years later, she did.
Being on horseback has never just been something Lori does; it’s at the core of who she is and always will be. She learned to ride a horse before she learned to tie her shoes. It’s been her passion ever since, and Lori’s competitive streak was just as present in the arena as it was on a ball field or court.
The start of the horse show season officially began with the Memorial Day Clinic in Lamar where, for three days, participants “rode and rode and rode” while they learned the new rules for horse shows. After that, it was several months of 4H horse shows demonstrating showmanship, horsemanship, reining and Western riding. When asked how she did, she just says, “I did very well.” Yup. That just about says it all.
Merle Shalberg was constantly on the lookout for a good horse for his daughter. When she was four years old, she had “Little Dusty”, a stubborn Shetland pony who met his match in an equally stubborn little girl. A year or two later, Everett Marble sold Merle a horse named Snip. (“Everett was always selling my dad horses,” Lori says with a chuckle.) In Lori’s words, Snip was a “big, ol’, stout, black quarter horse with a big square head”. Lori was 8 years old; Snip was 6. Merle also bought a horse named Babe who Lori rode when working “poles, barrels and flags”. Still, Merle kept looking for that one special horse that he knew could do for Lori what extraordinary horses are capable of doing.
He finally found him.
When Lori was about 13, Merle bought Cee Bar Pride--Cee Bar, as Lori calls him. At first sight, the smart, handsome, athletic 2 year old Palomino became the love of Lori’s life, and it was a relationship that lasted more than 30 years.
Lori rode Cee Bar in all the horse shows. She rode Cee Bar when she was crowned Miss Kiowa County Fair Rodeo Queen in both 1984 and 1985. She rode him when she was crowned Miss Arkansas Valley Fair Rodeo Queen in 1987.
And when Lori, a 21 year old CSU student majoring in biological sciences, entered the competition to be Miss Rodeo Colorado of 1990 and won, she rode Cee Bar in dozens of appearances at rodeos throughout Colorado and major rodeos throughout the nation.
There’s little doubt that, in some—if not most—of those rodeos, Lori rode into the arena at full gallop carrying the American flag.
FROM RODEO QUEEN TO FIREFIGHTER
In college, Lori joined the rodeo team, competing in barrel racing and team roping. One Friday night, she was in the arena, cleaning up after the event and tossing barrels over the fence. She caught the eye of a couple of EMTs who were there. “One of them yelled, ‘Hey, you ever thought about being a firefighter?’” she recalls. “I’d never thought about doing that before but the idea really stuck with me. That was on Friday. By Sunday, I’d decided to do it.”
She studied and, when the Fort Collins Fire Department opened up for applicants, took the written test and passed. Just a few days before she was scheduled for the agility test, she jumped off her horse to rope a goat during a rodeo and blew out all the tendons in her knee. The fire department only tests once a year. She’d missed her opportunity. That didn’t stop her.
She returned to Sheridan Lake where she taught PE at all levels and 7th grade math. “I also taught computer,” she says, “but we won’t talk about that.” She also coached, which she loved. “I based all my coaching on what I saw Mr. Palmer do,” she recalls. An experience she treasures was being asked to speak at Mr. Palmer’s retirement party. “I started by saying I was the son Mr. Palmer never had.” She laughs at the memory. “He liked that.”
As much as she loved teaching, she still had her sights on being a firefighter but needed to rehabilitate her knee. Once again, she developed a training program where, every day, she worked out on the Nordictrac and ran around Sheridan Lake at night.
The time came. She took the written test, again. And passed, again. Then she took the agility test, which was more a test of her pulmonary endurance. True to its reputation, it was worse than grueling. Lori didn’t just pass. Out of 1240 applicants, her time was ranked 10th highest. In a rare moment of bragging, she says, “When I was done, I jogged to my truck and, on the way, I passed all these guys who were along the fence throwing up. It sounds bad, but that made me feel pretty good.”
Lori was first assigned to the Fort Collins Fire Department’s Station Seven in La Porte where she was a firefighter and EMT, working as one of a three man crew with 24 hours on, 24 off. “I worked the nozzle,” she says, “which means you’re the first one into the fire.” At Station Seven, the calls were mostly medical and wildland fires. That first year is probationary; at the end, people are either fired or kept. Lori was a keeper.
After a year and a half, Lori transferred to Station Two, right next to the college and the “stupids” (firefighters’ nickname for students). She went on a multitude of medical calls and structure fires, but a few calls stand out in her memory.
It was the flood of 1997 when a storm dumped rain on the Fort Collins area at a rate of 3” per hour. “We were called to evacuate an elderly woman who was trapped in her house at the end of this long road,” Lori says. “I was walking across this creek, holding on to the fence and in water almost up to my armpits. And this deer went by—he looked terrified.” She shakes her head. “The fire academy didn’t train for water rescues, and I thought…if a deer can’t get out of this, I don’t have a chance.” But her crew persevered. Even though five people died in the flood, that elderly woman was saved.
In another incident, Station Two was called to a fire in Tinmoth. The warehouse of a paint store had caught on fire, and the building was “fully involved”. The firefighters were told there was a woman inside who’d been clear of the fire but ran back in to get her purse. Two search crews with two “men” each were sent inside. Lori was one of them. “That fire was real hot, probably 2300 degrees,” she says. “We were searching for the woman but when our air tanks started steaming and our face pieces started melting, we had to go. The only way was out the window.” Later, the body of the woman was discovered. “She never had a chance,” Lori says.
After 9 months in Station Two, Lori was transferred to Station One where, for eight years, she got to do what she always wanted: to be with a “truck company” that carries no water, and, instead, is charged with extraction (“You get to break things”), search-and-rescue and ventilation.
She describes one call where a two story house with a very steep roof was on fire. The house was fully involved, and there were children inside. Lori was assigned to ventilation: she had to climb a ladder more than two stories tall while carrying a full length, very heavy steel frame ladder to use once she got to the top. Once she got to the top of the roof, she had to throw the ladder so that the hooks caught and then walk on the extended ladder—which is suspended over the burning structure and is only about two feet wide—while carrying a chain saw that she used to cut a hole in roof, allowing smoke and heat to escape the house and assist with the search and rescue inside. Don’t flames and smoke fly out once the hole is cut? “That’s why you move your head,” she says. Couldn’t a person fall and drop as much as 40’ to the ground? “That’s why you don’t fall,” she says. Just all in a day’s work.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF ALL
At Station One, Lori was promoted to DO, one of the highest offices in the firehouse. Then, she began to have headaches. But these weren’t typical headaches. They were ferocious, almost blinding, and could last for days. She kept working but eventually went to the doctor, who, in 2001, diagnosed her with pseudo tumor cerebri, a condition where the brain thinks it has a tumor—although it doesn’t—and creates an excess of spinal fluid. It can’t be cured, only treated. Left untreated, the condition will cause permanent blindness; however, the treatment is frequent and involves doing a spinal tap and placing a shunt to dispose of excess spinal fluid. Over the years, Lori estimates she’s had at least 50 new shunts put in place and 60 spinal taps.
Lori kept working and, in support of her condition, was eventually moved by the Battalion Chief to Station Twelve, a smaller and less demanding station. But, eventually, she had to face the situation head on. “To be a great firefighter, you have to be in really good shape,” she says. “If you’re not, you put everybody at risk.” In what was the “hardest decision of her life,” Lori left firefighting after almost 15 years. The greatest testimony to how other firefighters viewed her (who called her “Princess” because of being a former rodeo queen) they donated enough sick and vacation pay so that she received a full paycheck for six months after she left.
In 2007, Lori returned to Sheridan Lake and was put on disability.
Then, Lori had gastric problems, and, in February of 2013, was diagnosed with colon cancer. A tumor was removed one week later. Her voice is subdued, the dry wit replaced by what can only be described as quiet reflection. “That was a bad year,” she says. “I had to put down Lacey, my dog I’d had for 15 years. And then, in October, I had to put down Cee Bar.”
She doesn’t speak for a few long moments.
In the three years that followed, things looked good. Then, in 2016, she learned that the cancer was back, in her lung, this time. She took radiation treatments, and got the report that the tumor was gone, which only happens in 10% of cases. Between the fifth and sixth radiation treatments, she had to have another shunt replaced.
In July of this year, it was discovered that the tumor had returned in her lung, and the lower right lobe of her lung was removed on Thursday, August 31st. As might be expected, she came through the surgery well. “I’m strong,” she says. “I don’t feel sick. I don’t look sick. And the doctors say this gives me the best fighting chance.”
When asked if she’s scared, she doesn’t hesitate. “No. I’m not,” she says. “I have a strong faith in God, and I have good doctors.”
Lori never talks about her troubles. She doesn’t consider herself to be an inspiration to others. When asked how she did all she’s done in her life so far, the credit always goes to her family, her upbringing, her community. Her own ability is only added as an afterthought.
As far as her goals now, she simply says, “To live. I know I have a fight ahead of me, but, like I always say, I don’t enter a competition unless I plan on winning.”
You go, cowgirl, and you keep on going.