This is no April Fool’s joke.
I’m proud to announce that I will be back for the fourth straight year for another series of “NFR Insider” in 2014! This is the first of many columns to come as we talk about all things Wrangler National Finals Rodeo related and follow the ProRodeo stars along the rodeo trail as they march toward Las Vegas.
It’s been a blast providing insight and commentary via this blog the last three years, and I’m looking forward to exploring new and fun features and storylines as the season progresses. I will write two articles in April and May and will begin producing weekly pre-Wrangler NFR items – every Tuesday – in June, as I did a year ago.
We’re constantly looking for ways to expand and evolve with “NFR Insider,” so feel free to send in your suggestions for what you’d like me to write about this year.
I am just now over the jet lag I was stricken with after returning from Sochi, Russia, where I spent nine weeks in January through March covering the Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games as a sports writer for the Olympic News Service. It was an amazing experience that I will treasure forever, and I hope it’s the beginning of many more high-profile events I am able to cover in the coming years.
Speaking of high-profile events, I was elated to see that the PRCA and Las Vegas Events reached a deal to keep the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas for years to come. Las Vegas is where the event belongs, and there is no city on the planet that can compete with it as far as entertainment and fun, so the world’s richest rodeo is in good hands.
I will write more about that topic in my May column, so stay tuned for that.
I covered short track speed skating during the Olympic Games and wheelchair curling at the Paralympics, and I was blown away by the athletes I interacted with and interviewed. I couldn’t help but compare them to rodeo athletes, because they all have overcome great obstacles – including major physical injuries – to excel at a world-class level.
There were numerous parallels between Olympic and rodeo athletes, from their constant training and practicing to their dedication to their sport, often for little monetary rewards. Both types of athletes earn every dollar they take in, and they all have stories of having overcome hardships to succeed.
United States short-tracker Jordan Malone – who helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the men’s 5,000m relay – reminded me of a bull rider because of the litany of his past injuries. Malone, who also was about the same size as most bull riders, has had 16 broken bones during his inline and speed skating career, and a massive facial injury required the insertion of metal plates and screws in his face.
Sound familiar bull riding fans?
He illustrated the point by flipping out part of his bottom teeth with his tongue during our interview, reminding me of the time I first saw 2006 World Champion Bull Rider B.J. Schumacher without a trio of front teeth after a ride. They both have prosthetic teeth that help fill gaps in their smiles, and are equally tough as nails.
Olympic athletes of all kinds toughed it out in Sochi like a rodeo athlete would in Las Vegas.
Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk didn’t let a broken foot keep her from winning gold in the 10k classic cross-country skiing race, reminding me of how J.W. Harris toughed it out during the 2011 Wrangler NFR after breaking his right foot in Round 4 and eventually finished second to Shane Proctor in the final world standings.
Dario Cologna of Switzerland tore ligaments in his right ankle in November of last year, but still won gold in the men’s 15km skiathlon and 15km classic races less than three months after having surgery. That performance can be likened to a number of rodeo-related injuries that athletes overcame, but the one that comes most to mind is when bull rider Matt Austin won the 2005 gold buckle despite a torn ACL.
The parallels are amazing, and I think that’s what endears fans to both rodeo and Olympic athletes. They are examples of true grit, determination and endless heart, and it’s a heck of an honor to be able to cover them both.
Thinking about this article got me wondering which winter Olympic sports certain rodeo athletes would excel at, if any. So, I asked a couple of them.
Not surprisingly, four-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho picked a sport known for its physicality.
“I would have to say hockey, just because it’s so physical and demanding on your body,” said the 6-foot, 250-pounder. “I used to ski whenever we were in Pocatello and I got a chance to, but that was about it.”
Branquinho agreed that there are many similarities between rodeo and Olympic athletes.
“I think just the mental toughness of the whole deal is very similar to rodeo,” he said. “They compete year-round and participate in preliminaries to get where they’re at too, and there are specific disciplines like in rodeo. If you don’t do well, there’s not much waiting for you at the end of the tunnel.”
Saddle bronc rider Jake Wright, who finished second to Chad Ferley in the race for the gold buckle in December, has some experience with a highly popular winter sport.
“I think the downhill snowboard racing would be pretty fun,” said Wright, who earned more than $105,000 in Las Vegas last year. “If I put enough time into it, I think that’s something I could do. The winter before last, I went out a few times with the wife and, shoot, I got the hang of it pretty fast.
“I enjoyed the heck out of it, and if I had a little more time for it, I’d do it more.”
Wright said the cross races would be an easier start for him than trying to do tricks on the half-pipe.
“I’d start out with the racing first, but the tricks would come later,” he said.
Wright’s twin brother, Jesse, is also a snowboarding fan, and Jake said they would have a pretty good race if they squared off on the slopes.
“If I got as much practice in as he did, I think it’d be good watching,” Jake said.
Luckily for me, the Olympics and ProRodeo are always great watching.