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Gianna Cianfichi, a freshman at Cal Poly, was on the rodeo grounds tying up one of her horses, Hoosier, on April 2 when the horse pulled back on the rope.

Cianfichi, a 2016 Santa Rosa High grad and nationally recognized rodeo competitor, had not yet completed the knot and her right thumb was still in the loop. When the horse pulled back, Cianfichi —an athlete who has been around horses since she was a toddler — turned away.

“I turned my body the other way to kind of get away from it,” she said. “It just kind of popped. I brought my hand around and was like, ‘Oh. I don’t have a thumb.’”

In a blink, the standout freshman on the Cal Poly rodeo squad went from prepping for the massive Poly Royal Rodeo the following week to searching for her first digit in the sawdust and dirt of a horse stall.

Rodeo coach Ben Londo was in his office when another student came running in and told him what had happened.

“She was sitting calmly on the curb next to the stalls,” he said. “Somebody brought the thumb to me.”

She was driven to the local hospital, but they immediately called for her to be airlifted to USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.

So preternaturally calm was Cianfichi that she doesn’t recall any pain on the helicopter flight, just that it was cool to see the Hollywood sign from the air.

Surgeons at USC reattached Cianfichi’s thumb, but it was not clear that it would take. As the hours went by, the healthy pinkish color of her hand started to change. It darkened.

Gianna’s mom, Carrie Cianfichi, remembers approaching the doctors to try to convey how active her daughter is, how important her ability to rope and ride is in her life.

“Gianna has been a cowgirl since she was a little girl,” she said. “She competes in rodeo at a national level and that is really who she is and why it was so important to me that they try again.”

They did try again, but four hours later the surgeons emerged from the operating room to say it was not a success.

“This was a really, really tough one,” Carrie Cianfichi remembers the surgeon telling her. “It was so tough that if it weren’t an 18-year-old, they might not have tried.”

The tear on her hand might have been tough, but it turns out Gianna Cianfichi is tougher.

“They were thinking of me as a young girl and it would be really sad to be without a thumb,” she said. “Me? I’m thinking more about how I’ve got to be able to rope.”

Cianfichi is a state rodeo champ many times over. In 2015, she was the California High School Rodeo Association Div. 2 cutting champ, breakaway champ, goat-tying champ and all-around champ.

“She’s good at every women’s event,” Londo said. “For a student to come in as a freshman and be competitive in every event, it’s tough to find. She’s obviously got a lot of natural talent and work ethic.”

Of all of the rodeo events, breakaway roping is Cianfichi’s best event. So the prospect of going forward with four digits, not five, might have been daunting. Breakaway roping is a rider on a horse at full sprint, spinning a rope above your head, then releasing to catch a darting calf. Do this without a thumb?

“She is going to have to hold and swing a rope without a thumb, which is like trying to throw a baseball or football without a thumb,” Londo said.

But it can be done. Cesar De La Cruz, a star of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, cut off his thumb when he was 12. Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer Cotton Rosser, who is one digit shy of a pair, said “Thumbs are like kidneys. You only need one.”

Cianfichi’s injury wasn’t a day old before she was making plans for her return. It wasn’t a week old before she attended the Poly Royal Rodeo with a heavily bandaged hand. And there she met Rosser.

“When she met him, it just validated that she will be able to do what she wants to do,” Carrie Cianfichi said. “She was asking the finer details of how you do this and how you do that. The wheels were already spinning on how she’s going to do this.”

This is a woman who, after all, jumped into a friend’s pool when she was little more than two. No floaties, no ability to swim. Just giving it a go. Mom immediately pulled her out of the water, but realized that while she could teach Gianna about the ins and outs of water safety, she could not undo her kid’s fearlessness. It seemed to be hardwired.

“My kids are amazing,” Cianfichi said of Gianna and Chase Cianfichi, who played baseball last season on Santa Rosa Junior College’s state championship team. “Both of them are kids that will try anything, do anything.”

Although it may seem like it, Cianfichi is not super human. She said the injury never really hurt, but she admitted she got sad. But it came at weird times.

She shed tears when she saw someone at the gym carrying their shoes in their right hand. She felt sad when she considered that she’d miss her first Poly Royal and that her freshman year would not go according to plan. Then she simply decided to shake it off.

“After a week she said to me, ‘I don’t want to be sad anymore. I want to be happy. I just need to figure everything out,’” Carrie Cianfichi said.

So Gianna reconfigured her classes to both maintain a full load and keep her eligible for rodeo, worked on her handwriting and started physical therapy. It hurt, but she liked it.

She picks up pens “with whatever is left of my thumb and my pointer finger.” She types, she takes notes.

And she does wall push-ups.

“With all those tendons there, you do a push up and it feels like someone is jabbing a knife in your wrist,” she said.

But she doesn’t mind. It pushes her closer to a full recovery.

She considered a medical procedure to lengthen her bone, or a surgery that would essentially replace her thumb with her toe.

No thanks — she’ll figure it out as it is.

Two weeks after the incident, with her hand still in a full bandage, she was back on a horse.

“I think she rode the horse before she told me she rode the horse and before the doctors cleared her to ride the horse,” Carrie Cianfichi said.

Typical. She tried to learn to rope left handed, but it felt too awkward, so she went back to her right. She barrel-raced last week. She has to teach her body to do things differently.

No thumb, no problem.

What do they say about getting back on the horse that threw you? Cianfichi needs no such reminders.

“I definitely think it happened to someone who could handle it,” she said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield @pressemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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