Willy keeps on ridin’

Willy Westman rides a stallion named “Uno” and his cousin Kally Wojciechowski (left) rides her stallion named “Champ” around the Wojo Arena in rural Greenbush on June 27. Nearly eight months ago, on November 11, 2019, Willy suffered numerous injuries in a car accident, including a break in his spine at the T7 vertebrae leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. This hasn’t stopped him, as he has continued to stay involved in an aspect of his life important to him— rodeos— aided by the support of family and friends. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

After opening up the chute doors to release a steer, Willy Westman smiles as he watches his cousin Kally Wojciechowski and uncle Keith Wojciechowski ride atop their stallions to chase down and rope this steer at the Wojo Arena located in rural Greenbush. While in the hospital for a couple months, Willy went through a rough time, but he told himself that he needed to get up and stop doing what he was doing. The rodeo life and the Wojciechowski farm provide him one outlet to get out of this rut. (photo by Ryan Bergeron)

Willy Westman circles the Wojo Arena in rural Greenbush on a stallion named “Uno” while his cousin Kally Wojciechowski does the same beside him atop her stallion named “Champ”.

Later that day, Willy stands up while secured to his track chair to open the chute doors to let the steers out, one at a time. Kally and Keith Wojciechowski– Willy’s uncle and Kally’s dad– speed after each of these steers atop their stallions to rope each one of them, as Willy cheers quietly and looks on with a smile on his face.

Before this moment, Willy began a life ride, one that proved more difficult than the rides he took atop bulls at rodeos following an accident nearly eight months ago. But since then, he has gotten back up, rediscovered his smile, and returned to his life’s passion– rodeos.

Back on November 11, he was driving his truck home on Highway 59 near Lancaster when he hit a patch of ice and a crossing. His truck rolled, tossing him around in it. According to his caringbridge site, he was life-flighted to Sanford Hospital in Fargo.

As a result of this accident, he broke his spine at the T7 vertebrae, paralyzing him from the waist down. He also broke a heel, cheekbone, and seven ribs, and suffered a collapsed lung.

“I almost died in this whole deal after my surgery,” Willy said. “And then they did a surgery on me and they put a cage around my spine and they took out a rib to get that cage in there. So then after that I was laid up for quite awhile.”

He would remain in the hospital for about two months. As part of that time, he also began doing physical therapy for a couple weeks in Grand Forks before moving back home to Greenbush in late January. Willy’s older sister Kendra Wojciechowski has been taking care of Willy on this journey.

“It was quite a ride. We’ve just come a long ways from where he started,” Kendra said.

To assist Willy on this journey, his uncle and aunt, Keith and Dana Wojciechowski, owners of Wojo’s Rodeo and Wojo’s Horse Training in rural Greenbush, are hosting the Willy Westman Benefit Rodeo on July 4-6 at Wojo’s Arena. To get there, travel three miles east of Greenbush on Highway 11, turn south on 230th Avenue and go one mile.

Hosting a rodeo in Willy’s honor was an easy decision, Keith said.

“He’s been hanging around here since he was a little kid,” Keith said. “I always tell the story that his mom and dad would drop him off by the house there and he’d come with a backpack with his roping and come running out here and spend the day with me. I guess it’s no different now.”

Now, Willy gets around the Wojciechowski farm by his motorized track chair that he bought and has been riding now for a few weeks. It allows him to not only move five miles an hour on his own, but also stand up– thanks to a strap– and do activities at the farm, such as opening the chute doors to release a steer. This chair has been, as Willy described it, “awesome,” providing him some independence and making his life better.

“I can get around. I can, if I need something at a rodeo, I can just leave and go get it,” Willy said. “I don’t need nobody to push me or nothing. It’s allowing for hunting and everything, everything that I do, fishing.”

Keith explained how he and his family have made sure that Willy can be with them all the time. As far as helping set up at rodeos, before his track chair, they had him driving a golf cart, adding a stick to it to allow him to do so. They’ve also made some adjustments on the farm to allow him to run the chute and chase cattle.

Willy has received support from many since his accident. This support has meant everything to him, from the many Facebook posts, calls, and texts from his friends within and outside the rodeo circle to his family. His sister Kendra has taken care of him and his sister Lindsey has helped too. This support has given him that fire to get going again.

“My mom and dad are great. Keith and Dana, (cousins) Kally and Tylor (Wojciechowski) they help me with this side of it—the rodeo side—getting me to rodeos, getting me on horses, getting me to be able to help with the rodeo again,” Willy said. “And I’m not leaving out the rest of my family too. Everybody’s (been) supportive. I appreciate everybody’s support.”

His father, Brian Westman, also has appreciated this support.

“I want to thank everybody for what they’ve done for him, cards, gifts. He couldn’t do this without the people out there doing it for him, and I just want to thank everybody,” Brian said while getting a little choked up. “… It’s been hard and tough.”

As for the rodeo benefit, when Willy heard about it being held in his honor, he felt many positive feelings about it.

“My auntie (Dana) and uncle (Keith) go out of their way for me and so does Kally and Tylor, and my whole family, they go out of their way,” Willy said. “But for them putting this rodeo on for me, it just means so much because it’s going to draw a lot of attention to my friends and family.”

He hopes these friends and family come to the rodeo to have a good time.

“I’m not even in it for the money. I don’t care,” Willy said. “I want people to come to have fun, come see me, and that’s it. I mean, I just want everybody to come and enjoy some rodeo action.”

Despite the accident, Willy has kept on riding that horse known as life. He plans to keep on riding it in the arenas he has come to love– rodeos. This accident hasn’t stopped him.

“Willy’s still the same guy. He just can’t walk. That’s about it,” Willy said. “And I’ll be fine with that as long as, I didn’t die so I mean that’s the big thing. So I’ll be happy (with) whatever God wants me to do, you know, I mean whatever. The cards are dealt and I’ll play them.”

To see the complete story, read the July 3 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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