National Finals Rodeo: Eight Seconds to Glory
It’s the most violent eight seconds in sports.
Rider and horse are released from the chute, a sudden and frenzied burst of kinetic energy akin to a full-fueled Canaveral launch. The goal, for bronco buster anyway, is to remain (mostly) upright, one hand in the rigging, the other in the air, for eight seconds of all-out, spine-bending punishment as the enraged steed attempts to buck its unwelcomed cargo to the high heavens.
Withstand the beating, show some style in doing so, and you shall be rewarded.
What a way to make a living. But Tim O’Connell, 28, has willfully chosen this as an occupation for the better part of his adult life, that of professional bareback rider. A onetime high school wrestler who grew up in a one-stoplight town of 95 inhabitants, the Iowan has emerged as a full-fledged rodeo superstar, one of only four men dating back to 1932 to have captured three consecutive bareback riding world championships.
His third straight gold buckle came last year at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the prestigious NFR, where the season-ending championship was so close it came down to the 10th and final round. Both rider and horse are judged on a scale of 0-50. Combined scores in the high 80s/early 90s are considered exceptional. An 87-point ride on a horse named All Pink proved the clincher, though it came at a high price. O’Connell — all 5-foot-7, 145 pounds of him — was violently tossed to the rodeo ring dirt, suffering a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum that would require surgery and sideline him for six months.
One of the few lefthanders in the sport, O’Connell was suddenly faced with the biggest challenge of his young rodeo career. Would he ever regain full strength? Was it realistic to aim for a title defense, let alone NFR qualification, after a six-month layoff? But a recent November afternoon found the husband/father pulling two-a-days in preparation for the biggest date on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association calendar: the NFR. Despite the setback, O’Connell had climbed back to No. 6 in the PRCA World Standings and will once again be among the very best bareback and saddle bronc riders, steer wrestlers, tie-down ropers, barrel racers and bull riders at the world’s premier rodeo, a 10-day extravaganza attended by more than 169,000 fans and telecast to 55 million households.
Live by StubHub caught up with the reigning world champ between training sessions.
STUBHUB: The National Finals Rodeo was huge for you last year. It’s where you claimed your third straight world title. But the NFR is also where you suffered the biggest injury of your career. What does it mean to you to be going back to Vegas healthy with a shot at yet another gold buckle?
TIM O’CONNELL: It’s a way different feeling. I don’t want to say I took the NFR for granted, but I may have to a certain extent. Coming in there the last three years as the No. 1 guy in the world, qualifying wasn’t an issue. Winning world titles was what was on my mind. Then getting hurt and not being able to start until the 20th of June this year, making the NFR was suddenly a serious thing. There were 80, 90 days left in the regular season and I was just starting. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I wasn’t nervous that I might not make it, but I did believe in myself. I’m very grateful. I’m super excited. Honestly, I kind of feel like there’s a weight that’s been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t have a big target on my back, guys trying to hunt me down to win the gold buckle. Now I’m the hunter.
SH: A role reversal.
TO: Yeah. Truthfully, I love having a target on my back. I love being No. 1. At the same time, they’ve got to know that I’m coming for them.
SH: I’ve watched the injury frame by frame, and you really hit the ground hard, at an awkward angle. I can’t help but wince when I see it.
TO: I’ve been in wrecks like that before, not nearly to the extent of how violently she chucked me down, but I have been pulled down like that. What really got me, what did most of the damage, was when she stepped on me. I hit the ground and was kind of underneath her when she stepped on my left calf. It was the bow-and-arrow effect and my shoulder was the point of impact.
SH: You’ve been in this sport for a decade now. I imagine you’ve experienced your fair share of injuries.
TO: The shoulder was the biggest one. That had to be surgically fixed. I’ve torn my left collar bone out of my sternum. They call it ‘separation of the SC [sternoclavicular] joint.’ That’s still dislocated. I just learned how to use that arm without having a joint in it. [Laughs.] I spiral fractured my riding hand in 2015. I came back five weeks later and started riding again. I’ve had ankle sprains, stuff like any other athlete. I competed all last year with a Grade 5 high-ankle sprain. It is what it is in our sport. I’m not saying that we’re tougher, but we don’t get paid unless we’re riding. I’ve got a little baby and a wife [Hazen and Sami] at home. When you think you’re good enough to go do your job, you’re back out there.
SH: You once spoke of your passion for the ‘man versus beast’ side of bronc riding. Tell me about that.
TO: This is the last of the Wild West. Our American heritage was conquering the Wild West. We’re the last of a dying breed who do this. This is what tamed America. I see a beautiful animal that can jump three feet in the air and kick over their heads and be 1,800 pounds doing it. Then I’m going to get on their back and ride through it. No matter what, you’re always the underdog. I love accepting the challenge.
SH: You’re never going to be stronger than that animal.
TO: You’ll never be more agile. You are the weaker opponent every time.
SH: Take me through the moments leading up to when you’re released into the ring. What goes through your mind in the chute?
TO: I have my routine. I put my hand on them. I say a prayer over them, over me. Then I walk away and start pacing back and forth, kind of getting in my zone, firing myself up. It’s like you’re fixing to go to war. We’re about to get into a bloodbath. I kind of get that fighter’s mentality. A lot of people call it going into a primal state. When it’s my turn, I’ll start pulling that horse, get my rigging where I want it, get it tight, put my glove on and kind of calm back down. I start breathing, making sure I’m focused, tuned in. I’m seeing my ride in my head. Usually, by this time, I’ve played the ride in my head over 100 times. I’ve seen this ride from what I’m going to see on the back of him; I’ve seen this ride from what you’re going to see in the grandstands; I’m hearing what the crowd’s going to be like. I’m all in. I put all my senses into what’s about to take place — every little aspect, from every point of view. I put my foot on their back to let them know I’m coming. It’s clockwork after that.
SH: There are some who would say that you need to be a little crazy to make a living this way. Is there a madman hidden somewhere inside you?
TO: I would say there’s a little madman in everyone who does an extreme sport. I would say that you are kind of a madman if you’re willing to run into 11 defenders trying to tackle you with a ball, 300-pound men who are hitting you as hard as they can for 60 minutes. I don’t find that to be very fun. I like doing my job for eight seconds. Guys who ride motocross. I don’t care to get that high in the air on a moving vehicle. There’s a little madman inside of everyone. It’s just how you crave your adrenaline rush. But, outside of rodeo, I do perceive myself as an average Joe. I don’t see myself as a three-time world champion. I’m not arrogant about it. I’m just a family man when I’m not doing this.
SH: You’ve said that, amidst all this success, pursuing world titles, you lost sight of what drew you to rodeo in the first place. Did the injury layoff give you time to reset and rediscover what you love most about this sport?
TO: Yeah, it did. All the world titles mean something a little bit different. In 2016, I won my first world title — this is what I’ve dreamed of since I was knee-high and understood what rodeo was. Everyone in this sport wants that gold buckle. Just like every baseball player wants a World Series ring. It’s no different. To accomplish that at such a young age. The second one really solidified that the first one wasn’t a fluke. I beat the second-best guy by over $100,000. That’s unheard of in our event. This last one was a straight-up dogfight to the bitter end. I had to leave it all out on the table at the NFR in Round 10. But I think I had these blinders on, only looking at the gold buckle. I wasn’t embracing the grind. When it was taken away from me, I found myself sitting on the couch with this sling on thinking, ‘Man, I would love to go to the gym.’ ‘I’d love to go to a rodeo and just watch horses buck.’ I found myself missing the game and everything that’s a part of it. It reignited that passion. At the same time, I got six months at home with my family that I haven’t had in six years. We don’t have an offseason besides these two months that you’re running your butt off getting yourself ready for the NFR. I don’t really call that an offseason. Then, two weeks after the NFR, we’ve got to go to Denver for the first major rodeo of the year [the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo]. There’s no time off. I think God really blessed me with an injury that made me take a break. My son’s first birthday would have been the day of the American [The American Rodeo in Texas]. How do you tell your wife, ‘Hey, Babe, I’m gonna go to Arlington and try to win us $100,000, or do you want me to stay home?’ It’s tough. I’m so thankful that I didn’t have to make that decision. Everything worked out. I had some complications with the surgery, but we had the right people in our corner. I just picked up right where I left off. Now I’m going back to the NFR in real contention to win another world title. I truly believe I’m going to shake the floor down there.
SH: You talk about being ‘blessed’ with the injury. But there must have been some dark times, some doubts along the way.
TO: I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say, ‘Man, is this possible to [come back].’ You’re talking about the best guys in the world. The sport has evolved. The athletes who are out there riding horses are better than we’ve ever had. Yes, there were doubts, but my wife was so supportive. She never let me have those doubts for too long. We talked a lot about it. She kind of knows when I’m getting in that funk. She knew how to drive me right back out of it.
SH: You mention the athletes constantly advancing, getting better. Talk about the conditioning side of the sport.
TO: It’s as tough as any other sport. The days of the cowboy who sits around in the bar every night — the dance is over. If you want to be competitive for a world title, that’s not a factor in your life, not in our event anyway. We have guys who are working out every day, who are getting nutritionists. Everyone is doing their best every day to better themselves, to be a better athlete on the back of a bucking horse. If you want to go in the party room, you’re probably not going to be part of the rodeo.
"The days of the cowboy who sits around in the bar every night — the dance is over. If you want to be competitive for a world title, that’s not a factor in your life, not in our event anyway."
SH: Let’s talk about the money. When you’ve got a team around you, nutritionists, travel, etc., it’s not cheap. When you hear about a baseball player like Mike Trout signing a 12-year, $426 million contract, does that even register?
TO: I’ve been blessed. I really have. The last three years in rodeo, I’ve won over $300,000 each year. If you’re going to be a rodeo athlete, you’re not going to retire and not do anything the rest of your life like a baseball player can, like a football player can. This isn’t that kind of sport. But it has seriously increased over the last 10 years, especially the last five. With the PRCA re-signing that contract [in 2014, the PRCA inked an extension to keep the NFR in Las Vegas through 2024], we ride at $27,000 a night. That’s crazy stuff for us. With a baseball player, $27,000 might be what they make per inning. I’ve been blessed with my opportunities and the people who are in my life, to put that money away and keep it working for me. But there are guys who make the NFR who are broke. If you come in 15th in the world, you’ve probably spent all that money trying to make it. In 2015, the guy who came into the event at No. 14 didn’t have much to his name when he got there. But he won $200,000 in 10 days. Vegas can be a game-changer. If you’re going to be a professional rodeo cowboy or cowgirl, you’ve got to know what the finances are going to be. You’re burning your candle at both ends for a gold buckle.
SH: That’s just part of the life?
TO: Yes. But I would say everyone in this sport truly believes in the sanctity of the sport, the art of a gold buckle and what it means to win one.
SH: You’ve got your name up there with the greats now: world champs like Bobby Mote, Will Lowe, Marvin Garrett, Joe Alexander. Is that humbling?
TO: Absolutely, 100 percent. At the end of the day, I’m going to have a life past rodeo when my career is done. I can look at my son and say, ‘This is what Dad accomplished in his life.’
SH: You’ve got an eight-second window in which to make it all happen. Talk about those eight seconds. Your body is taking a beating. You’re trying to do it with some grace, not to just stay atop the horse, but to do it with some style. What are those eight seconds to you?
TO: When things go right, you feel like you’re on top of the world. Our spurring motion is really just helping the horse more than anything. When I spur a horse, I’m spurring to help that horse buck harder. It’s trying to lift that animal off the ground.
SH: You’re working with them to find a rhythm?
TO: You’re pretty much dancing with them. When you do that — we call it ‘getting tapped off’ — you’ve found the perfect timing. You’re faster than the animal. You’re beating the horse back to the ground. With every jump, you’re just helping them more and more. You’re creating this picture for everyone to see, this moving picture, a perfect ride. You can feel the electricity rolling through your body. Everything starts slowing down. You can feel the energy of the horse coming though. It’s weird, but you kind of become one with the animal. It’s a feeling that’s indescribable.
"You can feel the electricity rolling through your body. You can feel the energy of the horse coming though. You kind of become one with the animal."
SH: I think you just did a pretty good job describing it. Is it all a blur? Can you take in the moment, see and hear the crowd cheering you on?
TO: Yes. When it’s going right, you can feel it all, see it all, hear a lot of what’s going on. It’s still fast — don’t get me wrong. But there’s a certain slow-down when you get in that zone with an animal. Truthfully, when things go wrong, it’s a very long eight seconds. [Laughs.] When you’re out of time with an animal, with real strong horses, you’re attached to a freight train by your teeth. You’re along for a ride.
"When you’re out of time with an animal, with real strong horses, you’re attached to a freight train by your teeth. You’re along for a ride."
SH: Better you than me.
TO: Those tend to be not so fun. But when you tap off to one of them, you feel like you’ve just conquered the world. You feel like you can do anything. When you get off of them and you know that you just tapped off to one of the strongest animals on the face of the earth, there isn’t a feeling to be matched by it.