Up and Down and Up Again

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

I’ve been to Vegas five times and never thought those ten days would play out like they did this year.

by Tim O'Connell

I had a plan for this year’s National Finals Rodeo. It was simple. I would dominate and extend my lead in the number-one spot. I figured if I could get enough of a lead, then I could breathe a little easier in the latter part of the week when I’d be so tired and sore.

My plan didn’t even make it past Round One.

Round One, I was 79.5. Round Two, I was 80. I wasn’t in the money either night. I felt my frustration start to build. Here I was the reigning World Champion, and I was doing these broncs a disservice. The best guy in the world should make an average horse look great—that’s your job. I felt like I was drawing middle of the pen, but I should’ve been making those horses look amazing. And here I was putting weak numbers on the board.

Round Three was our first eliminator pen, and I drew Craig at Midnight. I felt I had the opportunity to get my NFR started. I had ridden Craig three times prior, and every time was a dog fight. He is a freak of nature, the strongest horse I’ve ever ridden.

I gave it all I had and was 88.5 with a round win. That felt good, but, honestly, Craig did most of the work. I didn’t really get in a rhythm until about the fourth jump. I had to shake my head, be thankful for the win and hope that it was the ride that would start turning things around for me in Vegas. It wasn’t.

Round Four, I was barely in the money, and I do mean barely. Rounds Five, Six, Seven and Eight—nothing. That was my lowest point, hitting the dirt in Round Eight. It was our second eliminator pen—tough, strong broncs. I didn’t have the buckiest horse, but I felt that I’d made a good ride and we’d complemented each other well. But I didn’t place. I was one out of the money.

My NFR was close to being over. I felt defeated. I was trying to find comfort and encouragement in my faith, but it’s just a hard spot to be in. You’re at the pinnacle of your sport, and you feel off, and you can’t figure out why. This was turning out to be the most mentally frustrating NFR I’d ever experienced.

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I watch all my rides back to see what I’m doing wrong. How am I not using this bronc’s talent to make my job easier? You get to where you want to pick yourself apart, and you can’t. Sometimes you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. I felt like I had a good ride in Round Eight, but the score didn’t reflect it. Self-doubt was creeping in.

By that eighth horse, you’re exhausted. You hurt. The sixty-four seconds you’ve ridden so far seem like sixty-four minutes. And then you factor in the caliber of bareback riders around you.

This NFR had the highest caliber of competition I’ve ever experienced. I love it. When you’re competing alongside guys that have won the World three and four times, it forces you to push yourself, to put it all on the line every night for eight seconds. Everybody was riding great. Kaycee Feild was leading the average up through the seventh round. I never counted him out. Tilden Hooper was at his fifth NFR, and he was having an amazing Finals. He was a sleeper who showed up and was making the rest of us pretty uneasy in our boots. Caleb Bennett was matching me ride for ride. I’d place, and he’d place. I’d be out of the money. He’d be out of the money. I felt like he was on my heels every round. He was right there. Steven Dent was breathing down my neck, too. It was a triangle of possibilities. If Caleb and I did poorly, Steven excelled. If we did well, he didn’t. It was back and forth like a pinball machine. At one point Steven was a thousand dollars behind me in the average. I started to feel the pressure.

Round Nine, I rode Vitalix Ain’t No Angel. I was 90, and I was pumped. I felt like I’d taken the boot off my throat, but I still felt pressure. I knew it all came down to Round Ten.

Round Ten, I drew J Bar J’s All Pink. She is notoriously hard to get off of. She shoots forward and puts you in awful positions. I’ve seen guys end up on her butt or land in the dirt with their pants torn. Most guys double-grab on her and try to make the pickup man. That was my plan. Again, my plan lasted about eight seconds.

I heard the buzzer at eight, and I went to double-grab. She lurched forward and in half a second I was in an awful position. I was alongside her, upside down, with my hand still in my riggin. I was looking at her belly, and all my friends were upside-down on the chutes. It was like she slam-dunked me. It was so fast I couldn’t even react. I felt my arm twist. I felt my arm pull. I felt my arm hit the point of no return. The next jump she stepped on me while I was underneath her. It was enough force to slingshot me to the ground and get my hand free from the riggin. I tried to roll away, but my arm wasn’t coming with me. I looked up and saw her and realized she was still right on top of me. Fueled by adrenaline, I rolled out of the way. That all happened in maybe two seconds.

As soon as I was still, the pain started creeping in. I had to sit there a minute and try to breathe. I was 87 and split fifth and sixth in the round. Justin Sports Medicine helped me out of the arena, but first I had to go get my picture taken with Steven Dent, since we split first and second in the average. Again, adrenaline pushed the pain aside. I realized how close I’d been to losing it all to Dent, and that made it even sweeter to tie for first.

My brother-in-law loves statistics and numbers and odds. He told me after the fact all the different scenarios that could have happened, how close I’d been to not winning the World. I appreciate that he waited to tell me!

But I did win, and now I’m a three-time World Champion. After I won my first title and even my second, there were people who asked me if I’d earned it, deserved it, when guys like Kaycee Feild, Bobby Mote and Will Lowe weren’t in the mix. This time they were, and it tested me. My other competitors, my brothers, pushed me. They did not make it easy on me, but that made victory even sweeter.

This week I had X-rays done on my shoulder, and they came back clean. I had stem cells injected in my shoulder. I’m scheduled to have an MRI. The doctors think I tore my rotator cuff or labrum. If it’s a full tear, I’m looking at a twenty-week recovery. If it’s a partial tear, it can heal on its own.

I’m staying optimistic and entering winter rodeos already. Denver is one of my favorites. I always do well there. If I need to stay home and heal up until San Antonio in February, then that’s what I’ll do. But for now, I’m making plans and setting goals, because I’m not stopping at three gold buckles.

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