Getting a huge bus in and out of a tight space is Mary Slate's specialty.
In fact, maneuvering the unforgiving contours of a school bus around tight obstacles is an art form, said several county bus drivers who participate in the annual school bus rodeo.
Fifteen-year veteran Slate is this year's countywide school bus rodeo champion after beating 76 other drivers. Hailing from the East Bank terminal, the 46-year-old always wanted to be the one in charge of getting children safely to and from school.
Driving has been her desire since she took her first bus ride as a little girl. She spent much of her free time playing on the empty buses in a garage next to her house.
"It's kind of odd, but it's just something that's in my heart," she said.
Slate and four other Kanawha County drivers are headed to the statewide school bus rodeo in Wheeling on Wednesday and Thursday. Rodeos generally consist of a battery of tests and obstacles for drivers to navigate.
The county level had a possible 550 points to be scored, while 700 points are possible in the state competition. As of Monday, 77 drivers were scheduled to compete.
Slate scored 542 points at the county level last week, putting her just beyond defending champion Bill Wiseman for the win.
Wiseman, who works out of the Elkview bus terminal, takes competing in the rodeos seriously. Although the 54-year-old missed first place by two points this year, he will advance to the state round to compete in the large bus category.
"I was frustrated at myself, but I was glad for Mary," he said. "I always go to a rodeo to win first, but I don't always do it. I love to compete, and there's a bunch of good drivers here. I think Kanawha County is fortunate to have them."
The obstacles set up during a rodeo require drivers to make sharp turns and squeeze through challenging spaces. They must also demonstrate their knowledge of safety and protocol.
Dealing with diminishing clearance, being able to snake through an offset alley without knocking over any barrels or damaging the bus, and stopping when directed are all challenges drivers face during a rodeo.
One of the more complicated tasks drivers deal with involves a pre-trip inspection. They have six minutes to search the bus for five defects that can be almost anything. If something is missing from the bus' first aid kit or a dash light is out, points are docked from the driver's score.
Slate found the last defect in her pre-trip inspection with one second remaining.
"You have to hustle," she said. "Plus, you're looking for defects, so that's kind of a nerve- racking part you want to get over with. I had one second left in the county rodeo and found that the roof hatch knob was missing," she said.