ZWINGLE, Iowa – As the reigning bareback riding world champion in ProRodeo, Tim O’Connell has a simple mission when he arrives in Las Vegas next week for his fourth qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“I don’t plan on leaving there without another gold buckle,” said O’Connell, 26, of Zwingle. “I plan to ride smart, ride aggressive and ride like me. The chips are going to fall where they fall. God has a plan for that, and I’m going to trust that plan.”
He is a man of strong faith, and he is proud of it. He’s also proud of the talents God has given him both in and out of the rodeo arena. Now he will return to the NFR in search of his second straight world title, and he has a pretty good shot at it.
You see, O’Connell earned $202,916 through the regular season and holds the No. 1 spot in the world standings heading to ProRodeo’s grand championship, set for Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas. He wears a big target, but O’Connell is OK with it.
“I really like having a target on my back,” he said. “In my first two years, Kaycee Feild was the No. 1 guy going, and he dominated things. What I learned in those two years was the reason nobody could beat him was that he didn’t make mistakes and let anybody take his crown. He took that target so far out that nobody could hit it. He’s the guy that didn’t make mistakes, and that’s why he couldn’t be beat for four years straight.
“That’s where I really started changing my mindset. When I got it, I didn’t want to let go of it. Once I got it, I wanted to get that target as far away from everybody as possible.”
He’s done a good job of that so far. He owns a $65,000 lead over the No. 2 man, Minnesotan Tanner Aus. A year ago, O’Connell had more than a $40,000 lead after the regular season, then earned $195,000 in Las Vegas to outdistance the field by $140,000. He’ll need a repeat performance this year.
With a purse of $8 million and go-round winners earning more than $26,000 a night for 10 rounds, no lead is safe. A year ago, he placed in eight go-rounds, including a share of the title in Round 2. He won the all-important average title by having the best 10-round cumulative score, and that $67,269 bonus was added into his earnings. He finished last year with $347,272.
“The first year I made the NFR (in 2014), I was in the No. 4 spot, and I had just barely cracked $100,000,” he said, noting that the top nine cowboys in the world standings at the end of the regular season all reached that mark in 2017. “It’s amazing what rodeo has done in terms of money.”
That’s important. Not only is it how cowboys win championships, but this is his business and how he feeds his family, which is growing by one. He and his wife, Sami, are expecting a little boy in early March. These are exciting times for the O’Connells, and they hope to do a little celebrating over the 10 days in Las Vegas.
Tim O’Connell was raised around rodeo. His father, Ray, has been a pickup man, then the driver who hauled his young sons to their own rodeos. His mother, Joann, has been the support system. Brother Will rode bulls – even qualifying for the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo – and worked as a bullfighter before taking on the task of being a pickup man; he is actually one of the five finalists for the 2017 Pickup Man of the Year.
“My wife is a barrel racer who still runs,” O’Connell said. “She was the reserve national high school champion. She hasn’t run much lately because she’s pregnant with our first child. But I think there will be a time when my career is on the downhill side that she can run again and maybe see if she can get to the NFR.”
As a young high-schooler, he tried his hand at all three roughstock events, hoping to be the next Ty Murray, who won nine world championships and competed in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding.
But at 110 pounds, O’Connell didn’t quite have the body type to manage all the rough-and-tumble bucking events. In his first three rodeos, he was knocked out three times in either bareback riding or bronc riding. He decided to focus his attention on bull riding until he turned 18.
“I was in a slump with my bull riding, so I went to the Three Hills Buck Out,” he said. “The first one I got on was East Coast Otis, which turned into being an eliminator in bareback riding. She two-jumped me and threw me over her head. I got on one more and got him rode. I just fell in love with it. There was something about it that was very intriguing to me, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.”
That’s a good thing. O’Connell attended both Iowa Central Community College and Missouri Valley College on rodeo scholarships. He won the ProRodeo bareback riding rookie of the year title in 2013, then claimed the college championship in 2015.
Each year he has played the game in Vegas, he has finished among the top 10. Of course, being the reigning world titlist was a shot of momentum that kicked off the 2017 campaign.
“I think that played a lot into having a strong regular season,” O’Connell said. “When you show up with the attitude and mindset that you are a world champion, I think it elevated my game even more. The pressure is on me to be that good. The pressure drives me to wake up every day and be a better person than I was the day before.
“I think I’m a very consistent rider as far as my scores go. I think I can do a lot of things on an average horse to make an average horse better. If you get into a short round and have the 12 best horses there, I feel like I can really do something.”
Though it didn’t count for the world standings, O’Connell’s biggest victory came in February at The American, where he rode Frontier Rodeo’s Show Stomper for 90 points to win $100,000.
“That was the first time I was ever 90 in my career,” he said. “That really got me going for the year. My confidence went through the roof after that. I felt like I was taking advantage of every horse to the best of my ability, and things were steamrolling at that point.”
Since Dec. 1, 2016, O’Connell has earned more than $500,000. That’s pretty good money for riding eight seconds at a time. But there’s a lot of work behind the scenes, in the gym and on the road that all fits into each ride. Now he plans to show that off again in Las Vegas with 14 others who earned the right to compete there.
“This is probably one of the most talented group of bareback riders that has hit the Thomas & Mack,” O’Connell said. “I might have a $65,000 lead, but I’m going in there like we’re neck and neck. They will snatch your dreams if you let them.”
He won’t let them. He’s got his eyes on the prize, and it’s made of gold.