It’s all got to start somewhere –
Kollin VonAhn once told me that being a world champion was something like being a mountain climber. Everyone starts at the bottom and as the mountain gets steeper, fewer are making it to the top. When he won his world title in 2009 in the heeling, he was the lone man at the top of the mountain. Then, he started at the bottom of the mountain all over again along with all of the contestants dreaming of world titles.
Just getting to the mountain is the start of any hopeful cowboy’s career. Membership in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association) starts when a person buys their permit.
After buying their permit, they can enter rodeos which accept permits and when they win $1,000 they have the option of getting their PRCA or WPRA card. Their first year as a card holder is the only year that they are eligible to win the Resistol Rookie of the Year Award.
Contestants have the option of buying a second permit and filling it with earnings. They can also stay on their permit as long as they are a full-time student at an accredited college or university. This gives them options to try to win the Rookie Award and they can still compete at sanctioned events and earn points for circuit finals qualifications.
Getting riders has never been a problem for Benny Binion’s World Famous Wrangler NFR Bucking Horse and Bull Sale. In 2008, stock contractors and sale organizers decided to make it a little bit more interesting inviting the top permit holders in the PRCA.
Last year, the PRCA Permit Holder of the Year Challenge invited the top five team ropers, steer wrestlers and tie-down ropers to compete as well as the bareback, saddle bronc and bull (roughstock) riders. Held at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center, it gave the future stars of the PRCA an opportunity to experience a championship event under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
Several Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) contestants have used this as a stepping stone. With the addition of timed events, expect to see more of these talented cowboys earning Permit Challenge titles and coming back to Vegas to compete for 10-nights instead of one afternoon.
One of the most notable contestants to compete at the Permit Challenge is the reigning world champion Sage Kimzey from Strong City, Okla. He won the bull riding in 2013 and went on record as the contestant to earn the most money on his permit in a single season with $47,726. One year later, he earned the Rookie title, qualified for the WNFR and earned a gold buckle. It was a remarkable feat that may never be repeated.
Last year, the second member of the Wright family earned a saddle bronc riding title at the Permit Challenge. The first was in 2011, when the reigning world champion Spencer Wright won it. The next year he won the Rookie of the Year and finished 29th in the world standings. In 2013, he won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championship competing for the College of Southern Idaho and finished 25th in the PRCA. Last year he entered the WNFR in 13th place and emerged at the top of the mountain.
Spencer’s nephew, Rusty, was the champion at last year’s Challenge. He had been coming to Las Vegas to watch his dad at the WNFR for nearly as long as he could remember. He was just seven years old the first time that Cody qualified. So when Rusty got a chance to compete why wouldn’t he? Last year, Rusty finished 30th in the standings and got to make two appearances in Las Vegas. The first was at the Permit Challenge, the second was at the WNFR when he was awarded the buckle as the saddle bronc riding rookie of the year. This year he climbed higher on the mountain and will be coming out of those yellow bucking chutes in the Thomas and Mack Center.
Other Permit Challenge winners that have qualified for the WNFR include Cole Elshere who won the saddle bronc riding in 2009 and 2010, Joe Frost (bull riding) and Tim O’Connell (bareback riding) who won in 2012 and CoBurn Bradshaw, the saddle bronc riding champ in 2013. Frost, O’Connell and Bradshaw also went on to earn college titles.
O’Connell won the rookie title in the bareback riding in 2013 and finished 21st in the world standings. Injuries were a factor and might have kept him from qualifying for his first WNFR that year. That changed in 2014 when he finished the season in eighth place. For him, the Permit Challenge wasn’t just a place to showcase his skills, it was a chance to be motivated and inspired.
“That was my NFR as a permit holder,” he said. “When I won, I was the permit world champion. That was big for me. Then when I won the rookie, I got to go on the arena floor to get my award. It was huge. It all lit a big fire in me. I wanted to be there as a competitor more than ever.”
This year’s regular season finds O’Connell in seventh place. He will be at his second WNFR and is one step higher up that mountain.
The Permit Challenge comes under the jurisdiction of the PRCA’s Industry Outreach, which also coordinates the PRCA Championship Rodeo Camps and programs with youth rodeo associations. It’s exciting to see the hard work and dedication of organizers pay off with young talent excelling in the rodeo arena. This year’s event will again be at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center on Thursday, Dec. 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
It’s exciting to see the young talent coming into a sport. The Permit Challenge roster features college and high school champions and once again highlights the future of rodeo. It wasn’t all that long ago that O’Connell was there, getting a taste of the bright lights of Vegas.
“There are not many chances that you get to go to Vegas like that,” he said. “It was a great opportunity and I’d tell any one of those guys to leave it all on the table and let the cards fall as they may.”