Rose Sparks and her sister bobbed in the water off the coast of Panama City, Florida, enjoying a much-needed vacation. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a feather floated across the water toward Rose. “How does that happen?” Rose thought. But then she knew. Rose’s only daughter, Lauren, had passed away a few months before, just four hours before her 26th birthday. During her short life, she had often found feathers and presented them to Rose.
Rose plucked the feather out of the water. “I still have it,” she says. Many times since then, usually on the saddest of days, she has seen feathers floating by. “I know that she’s thinking of me, wanting me to accept that it’s the best thing,” Rose says. “And it is; I know that. It was the best thing for her.”
When Lauren Sparks was five years old, she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare congenital condition that made her bone marrow incapable of producing enough blood cells to sustain life. Although no other member of the Sparks family was a match, Lauren’s twin brother Lane came to the rescue, donating bone marrow to save his sister’s life. For many years, Lauren was a healthy child, and she took up barrel racing at an early age. She was a fierce competitor. Amy Pierce, who has been friends with Rose since before the twins were born, remembers Lauren as a young girl, already a capable horsewoman and barrel racer. “She could outrun seasoned runners at a young age,” Amy says. “She was tiny, but outrunning everybody. She was very, very good.”
Lauren and Lane participated in youth rodeos and barrel races for years, unaware that another terrible diagnosis was about to shatter Lauren’s future. When the twins were 16, a series of mysterious symptoms ultimately resulted in a diagnosis of dyskeratosis congenita, an exceedingly rare progressive genetic disorder that causes early aging, organ failure, and bone marrow failure. Lauren required increasingly-frequent blood transfusions, but that didn’t stop her from barrel racing. She competed—and won—at the high school, collegiate and professional levels.
At just 84 pounds, Lauren had an advantage over other barrel racers, Rose says, and her skill, combined with the efforts of her mare Belle, produced a winning synergy. “They were a team,” Rose says. Rachel Wood, who was a friend of Lauren’s since the two were members of Lone Star College’s rodeo team, remembers Lauren’s accomplishments. “For sure she was the best, but she was always so humble about it,” she says. “There was never any kind of bragging whatsoever.”
“She didn’t let her health struggles slow her down,” Amy says. “She always had a smile on her face no matter how bad she felt. And when it was her turn to compete, she was mighty and fierce and would set the pace with a blazing run.”
In 2015, Lane once again stepped up, donating stem cells in the hope that it would save Lauren’s life, but on January 27, 2018, Lauren passed away.
Before Lauren’s passing, friends had hosted benefit barrel races for Lauren, and her twin brother remembered how much she appreciated them. “She enjoyed the benefit races and was completely humbled by all the people who showed up and supported her,” Lane says. “They came out in droves for her.” So, Lane had the idea of continuing those races, but as an event that awarded scholarships in Lauren’s memory. “I wanted to keep her name alive and make it an annual event to honor Lauren,” he says. And so, the inaugural Lauren Sparks Memorial Barrel Race, with the slogan “Let the Sparks Fly,” was held in 2019. It was one of those spring weekends with temperatures in the 30s, but more than 400 barrel racers attended anyway. Lane, riding Lauren’s horse Belle, won the men’s division. “It was a blast. She’s a wild beast. I think she came in on two legs,” Lane says. “It was a lot of fun. It was an honor to run her. I don’t do as well as Lauren did, but Belle took care of me.” Last year, about 700 barrel racers participated. One lucky participant won a horse trailer, and two $2,000 scholarships were awarded.
The Sparks family hopes this year’s event will be even more memorable. It will be held on April 30 and May 1 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Conroe. It’s truly a family event, Lane says, with his older brothers Brian, Chris, and Jeff cooking and manning the concession stand, and with their father Bennett Sparks and mother Rose doing everything from opening stalls to overseeing a silent auction. Lane’s wife, Dr. Amy Sparks, an equine veterinarian, will be there to help out with horses’ medical needs. And friends pitch in, too. “I help out however I can,” says Lauren’s friend Rachel. “It turns out that setting barrels in the arena is where I am most needed. It’s one of those jobs nobody wants to do, but it has to be done or the race can’t go on.”
Lauren’s friends and family members agree–she’d be pleased an annual barrel race is held in her memory. “I think it would make her very happy. These are her people. Some of them are always looking for races to go to, but a lot of these people knew Lauren personally,” Rachel says. “She would be thrilled,” Lane agrees. So does Rose, who says, “It pleases me because I know it would please her. It was important to her to be carried on.”
It makes Rose sad when people reminisce about Lauren, but it’s getting easier. “I do smile. I am happy to see them, and I am happy they are there. I don’t cry as much, but sometimes I become overwhelmed, and it just happens.” She finds comfort in the fact that so many people remember Lauren with such fondness, like Lauren’s friend who recently told Rose her memories of Lauren. “She told me, ‘There was never a day that she didn’t smile and have something good to say to people and about people,’” Rose says. “She said, ‘I will never forget her.’”
“She was just the sweetest, most genuine person,” Rachel agrees. “I became friends with her and her family very quickly, very easily. She was nice to everyone. She was never discriminatory. She was so nice.” Rachel finds it heartwarming that this “super-amazing person” is remembered every year at a barrel race in her memory.
“She was such a positive person—so positive and so competitive that people may not have known she had any health struggles,” Amy says. “She was always smiling, always happy, always complimentary. Knowing what she was going through, it was always impressive to see how much strength she had and how competitive she was. To participate in her race is an honor. It means so much, because Lauren meant so much to so many people in so many ways.”
Perhaps Rose says it best: “She left a lot of footprints.”
For more information about the Lauren Sparks Memorial Barrel Race, visit its Facebook Page.