LAS VEGAS – Tim O’Connell is feeling like his old self.
While he won’t offer any excuses to a less-than-par National Finals Rodeo a year ago, he knew he wasn’t able to ride up to the level he expects of himself. He’s won three world championships because of the ability he has in riding bareback horses, so there have always been high expectations.
“To start your finals out feeling like myself, feeling strong, feeling comfortable with my hand in my rigging, my position on the back of the bucking horse, the command I had on the back of the bucking horse … I just felt totally in control of everything that was happening in that ride,” said O’Connell, 31, of Zwingle, Iowa, now living in Marshall, Missouri.
It showed. He rode Pickett Pro Rodeo’s Scarlet Belle for 85.5 points to finish in a tie for fifth place during Thursday’s first go-round of this year’s NFR. It was worth $6,063. Most importantly, the ride provided the champ a bolt of confidence as he prepares for the final nine nights of the 2022 ProRodeo season.
“It is really a big deal to get a check,” he said. “This is probably the toughest set of guys ever coming in here from one to 15. The 15th guy could have won this round; the No. 1 guy in the world could have won this round.
“I didn’t do too much; I didn’t do too little. I did exactly what I did with the animal that was underneath me. I think I was only two points off winning this round. I feel really good about it. I felt I did everything to the best of my abilities. That is all I can ask for out of myself.”
In the summer of 2021, O’Connell suffered a broken tailbone that had to be removed. Though he was back and able to compete at ProRodeo’s championship event, he wasn’t quite up to his standards. He finally felt good about his riding in July. Then in August, he suffered an injured thumb on his riding hand that required surgery and ended his regular season.
He got on seven practice horses to prepare his mind and body for the rigors of the NFR, a 10-round slugfest between the top 15 bareback riders and the top 100 horses. His focus on opening night was on his fundamentals, getting a good start and testing how well his thumb and the rest of his body would adjust.
“I knew by the second jump she was going to let me start going,” said O’Connell, who attended Iowa Central Community College and won an intercollegiate national title while competing at Missouri Valley College. “From that point on, when I can get going on the back of a bucking horses and have them picked up and the timing picked up, I can be exposed and can be in control.
“I can flash one up a little bit more than others can. That’s just my riding style.”
As he prepared for the richest week and a half every year, the Iowa-born cowboy also made sure his equipment was set for the experience. He acquired a new rigging and utilized those practice horses to adjust the apparatus, but something wasn’t right. He made it right by switching back to the rigging he had been using.
“When I slid to (the rigging), I knew it was in the right spot,” he said. “I knew my hips were underneath it. From the time I ran my hand in and laid back, this is it. We are golden with this.”
Golden is key, because that’s what he wants to be when the season ends in nine days.