February 24, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The image of Cheryl Kleng Hagen, a former La Grande resident, is bound for Olympic scrapbooks throughout the world.

Hagen competed at the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in cowboy mounted action shooting. Spectators, fascinated by the Wild West legacy cowboy action shooters represent, took enough photographs of Hagen and her competitors to fill a darkroom. Some of the most interested spectators were from China.

They were very interested in our western heritage, Hagen said.

Hagen, a Dayton resident and a 1973 graduate of La Grande High School, was among 20 women in the world who had qualified to compete in cowboy mounted action shooting. It was an exhibition sport and no medals were awarded.

In cowboy mounted action shooting competitors ride a horse over a course that has obstacles and 10 balloons 21 feet apart. Riders shoot at each with a .45-caliber single-action pistol. The sport has been described as barrel racing with guns.

All cowboy action shooters dress in pre-1900 clothing. Hagens wardrobe includes a silk scarf, a shirt without a collar and chaps. Hagens pistol

malfunctioned during the competition. An official told Hagen that her times were so good that she would have won the womens competition if her pistol had not malfunctioned.

I was a little upset with (the pistol) but that is part of it, Hagen said.

She had tested her gun extensively prior to the competition and had no problems. Hagen believes her pistol malfunctioned because of slightly different ammunition used at the Olympics. The guns used by cowboy action shooters are finely tuned and are sensitive to different ammunition.

Cowboy mounted action shooters fire crushed walnuts in black powder rather than bullets.

At the Olympic tryouts in early November, Hagen had the second-best overall time. The tryouts were open to people from throughout the world.

A tense competitive atmosphere did not exist during the Olympic competition. Entrants focused more on entertaining the approximately 1,500 people in the indoor arena.

It wasnt like a competition. It was a Wild West show, Hagen said. ...It was a show for the people in the stands. (The Olympic officials) wanted us to show our West-ern heritage.

Hagen, who lived in La Grande for 35 years, is the daughter of Beverly Kleng Berklund of La Grande and the late Louis Kleng. Hagen rides a 17-year-old quarter horse named Playboy.

In Salt Lake City the cowboy mounted action shooting competition was conducted over two days in an indoor arena.

The temperature outside fell as low as 8 degrees, which made it difficult for entrants to keep their horses loose since they had to wait outside before competing.

The most moving part of the experience was the grand entry into the arena, Hagen said. The National Anthem was played as the riders entered.

The patriotic environment was electrified by sparklers that flew out of the arenas flag pole.

The National Anthem never meant so much to me since I knew I was representing my country, Hagen said.