While the 24th annual Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials is less than a week away, the event will be the first for Mary Cunningham.
By JEFF BURKHEADjeff@theheraldtimes.comMEEKER I While the 24th annual Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials is less than a week away, the event will be the first for Mary Cunningham.At least her first as the new director.Cunningham — called Maym by family and friends — is taking over for her sister, Ellen Nieslanik, who is stepping down as director at the conclusion of the trials, which run Sept. 8-12.“Everything is coming together,” Cunningham said Monday. “I’m learning the ropes. It’s working well.”With her younger sister showing her the ropes, Cunningham has assumed more and more of the director’s duties.“Ellen is so organized,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been part of everything she’s done, so hopefully I’m taking the burden off of her.”After six years with Nieslanik as director of the sheepdog event, it was announced in July that she would stay on through the trials, to help with the transition, but that she would step down after the event was over. Nieslanik’s decision to give up the directorship of the trials — a position she loved and excelled at — was difficult, but her all-consuming approach to the job was affecting her health.Then, when the board of directors looked for the best person to fill Nieslanik’s role, they didn’t have to look any further than her own family.Sister Mary is familiar with the trials, having been an art vendor in the past, and she and husband Greg started a dog trial in Kaycee, Wyo., where they used to live, modeled after the Meeker Classic, but on a smaller scale.And she shares Ellen’s passion for trialing, which has her excited for the upcoming Classic.“Things are shaping up great. With all this moisture (Meeker has received recently), it’s gorgeous out there,” Cunningham said of Ute Park, the site of the trials. “So it’s all coming together.”The event kicks off next Wednesday, but handlers will start arriving the first of the week.“I think some of the handlers may be showing up Sunday or Monday,” Cunningham said. “I think we have 125 or 126 entries, and there’s a standby list. So it will be a full roster.”There will be a check-in at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.“We’re doing something new this year in that we’re accepting late entries, if we have any openings,” Cunningham said. “They’ll have to go through a standby list. But once we get all the handlers checked in, we’ll see if we have any no-shows. People on the standby list would have priority, if we have extra space. They can do a late entry, with a maximum of two dogs per person.”As Cunningham counts down the days to when the event begins, she feels good about the apprenticeship period she has had with her sister.“I have a great teacher,” Cunningham said. “And the board is so supportive. They are a good, active board. People have just been wonderful.”