Surfing might be the state’s best-known sport, but Hawaii’s teen cowboys are rocking America’s most competitive rodeo.

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EVERYONE HAS A ROPE, and they all know how to use it: Parents rope toddlers’ legs, 6-year-olds lasso 5-year-olds, grandparents throw lariats at anyone they want, and teenagers aim for cattle. It’s a weekend rodeo at the Parker Ranch in Waimea, nestled in the saddle between the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, on Hawaii’s Big Island. Rodeos like this one have helped produce champions as recently as last July, when a pair of Hawaiians made history at the national level by roping a steer in 7.107 seconds, the fastest time in the country — all while riding borrowed horses. Jordan Gomes of the Big Island and Levi Rita of Oahu, both seniors, won belt buckles and scholarship money at the National High School Rodeo Association finals, placing fourth overall in team roping. Throughout the arena in Farmington, N.M., competitors murmured that the Hawaii team’s record time was a total head-scratcher.

“ ‘Hawaii. You surf there, right?’ ” mocks Shelby Rita, Levi’s younger sister, a poised 18-year-old senior. She wears a bejeweled trucker hat with pink leopard spots on the brim and is this year’s favorite for state champion.

How did tiny Hawaii, an isolated archipelago in the middle of the Pacific, produce some of the greatest cowboys on Earth? The rodeo might be a way of life in the American West, but to most people there’s no good reason to think that Hawaii should turn out champion horsemen and horsewomen. Yet it does — and has for generations.

Hawaii is best known for its pristine beaches and azure waters, but in the spaces between the reefs there is a long- standing cowboy culture. The swagger of the cowpoke is as much the state’s guiding ethic as the surfer’s hang-ten. Hawaiians were roping cattle long before there was such a thing as the American frontier: The first herd arrived as a gift from Capt. George Vancouver to King Kamehameha I in 1793. The king was so enchanted that he declared cows sacred. So they roamed free, overbred, and 40 years later, the king’s grandson, Kamehameha III, invited Spanish vaqueros from California to teach Hawaiians how to manage the herds. The Hawaiian word for cowboy, paniolo, is a derivative of the word for “Spanish,” españolo. In fact, Hawaii has produced champion ropers before: In 1908, Ikuda Purdy, a paniolo at the Parker Ranch, took home the world championship roping title in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Hawaii’s high school horsemen and -women still compete in events that call to mind the paniolos and Purdy. Double mugging is an appropriately named combination of roping and wrestling, with one man on the ground and the other chasing on horseback, working as a team to rope, throw down, pin and tie a runaway steer. The second local event, Po’o Wai U, places a metal tree in the middle of the arena. When a steer bolts from the chute, the cowboy threads his rope through the Y of the tree’s “branches,” tying the animal right to the trunk. Both events model how modern paniolos herd descendants of Kamehameha’s cattle, which still roam the open slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa today.

At 135,000 acres, Parker Ranch is one of the largest open ranches in the United States, even if it is on an island. Beef cattle represent a $20 million industry on the Big Island, producing more than 5 million pounds of free-range, grass-fed, salt air– finished beef annually, most of which ships to the mainland.