ZWINGLE, Iowa – Bareback rider Tim O’Connell is back in his rightful place: Atop the world standings heading into the sport’s world series, the National Finals Rodeo.
O’Connell is a three-time world champion from Zwingle who had his streak of consecutive gold buckles interrupted last year. An injury forced him to miss all but three months of the season, then he ran into a buzzsaw in 2019 champion Clayton Biglow, who set records en route to his world title.
Despite the restrictions that have come through the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, O’Connell dominated the season. He was the only bareback rider in the game – and only one of four cowboys in ProRodeo – to have earned at least $100,000; he is joined by tie-down roper Shad Mayfield and saddle bronc riders Wyatt Casper and Ryder Wright.
“There was a lot that I would have to consider the best part of the season,” said O’Connell, 29, now living in Marshall, Missouri. “My winter was phenomenal, but tying the world record would probably be the cherry of the season.”
Good point. On Feb. 15, he spurred his way to a 94-point ride on Northcott Macza’s Stevie Knicks, becoming just the fourth cowboy in ProRodeo history to have marked such a score. With that, he won the San Angelo (Texas) Cinch Chute-Out and $7,500. He added big paydays through March, when the pandemic shut down the season for two and a half months.
“I was drawing well; I was feeling great,” he said. “Everything was just clicking. I was just in the zone. Everything was going my way. They just kept running the right horses underneath me. They were tough horses, too, but it didn’t matter. I was just so into it.
“I think a lot of it had to do with me taking my family down South for the winter run. They kept me saner. I noticed I do a lot better with my son and my wife around.”
There aren’t many opportunities for rodeo cowboys to have that type of experience. In a typical season, O’Connell and his traveling group can be gone for weeks, maybe months, at a time. Having his wife of five years, Sami, and their toddler son, Hazen, in tow meant there were more comforts of home and no time to miss them.
He got a little more time with them when the world shut done while trying to figure out how to best manage COVID-19.
“I was just enjoying my time at home with my wife and my little man,” said O’Connell, who attended Iowa Central Community College and Missouri Valley College on rodeo scholarships. “This was way different than last year. Everybody had to sit out with me. Being hurt last year, you find out things you enjoy, like hanging out with your family and watching your kids grow. Don’t take that stuff for granted. I built some stuff, and I grilled a lot. I stayed in shape and just had a great time with my family.
“It wasn’t a lot different than last year, except no one got a head start on me.”
A season ago, O’Connell underwent surgery shortly after the 2018 NFR and earning his third straight world title. He didn’t return to action until late June, then promptly earned more than $110,000 in a little more than three months to give himself a shot at a fourth Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
While circumstances were different, there was a lack of opportunities in 2020. A typical year in ProRodeo features around 700 events. Less than half occurred through the pandemic, and many of those had to cut their purse in order to have a rodeo. Some went with limited fans or without them altogether.
At virtually all the rodeos that happened this season, every top cowboy in the mix put his name in the hat to grab at least a portion of the money.
“It was just tough with tough competition,” he said. “Everybody that was trying to make the NFR was at the same rodeos. There was no ducking off; a lot of times we can do that, and it’s a little easier to win money.
“The very best bareback riders in the world were at every rodeo. It just goes back to my mindset: You’ve got to take advantage of whatever horse you get on. I had a $73,000 winter, and that’s what got me to where I am. From June through September last year, I won $113,000, and it just wasn’t there this year. It hurt, but I feel for everyone.”
Now, though, he’ll test his talents again at a new site; because of COVID, the NFR will take place at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, home to the Texas Rangers and the complex that housed the 2020 Major League Baseball World Series in October. The retractable roof offers an opportunity to have an indoor-like rodeo while also allowing fans to social distance.
It will be the first time for most contestants to play their game in a baseball stadium.
“I think the opportunity to win a gold buckle, hopefully for just one year at that stadium, will be amazing,” said O’Connell, who credits a great deal of his success to his sponsors, 12 Gauge Ranch, Polaris, Panhandle and Rock and Roll Clothing, Justin Boots, Veach’s Custom Leather, Ingram Quarter Horses, MRT Racing Tires, Capri Campers, Twin Cities Featherlite, American Hat Co. and Super Duty Fans.
“This is a unique experience that only a few of us will get to do together. I love the Thomas & Mack (in Las Vegas, the NFR’s home since 1985), but if they can’t have us, Texas has welcomed us with open arms. It will be interesting to see how the horses buck and how the atmosphere affects things.”
The goal, after all, is to gather another world championship. The champ has often said that having the lead is nice, and he understands he wears a target on his back that other bareback riders will be shooting at over 10 nights in Arlington. He just wants to keep pushing that target further away from the competition.
He sits No. 1 in the world standings with $122,927 and owns an $28,000 lead over the No. 2 man, four-time world champion Kaycee Feild. It’s a much different feeling than he had a year ago, when he entered ProRodeo’s grand finale sixth in the standings. He moved up fast and finished the 2019 campaign third.
“I don’t like being the chaser; I like to be the frontrunner,” O’Connell said. “There’s more control when you’re the No. 1 guy in the world. Last year, there was definitely less pressure, but I prefer the pressure being on me.”
There’s something about his mentality that just clicks, and that’s a good thing in bareback riding, the most physically demanding of all events in rodeo. Now a seven-time NFR qualifier, the Iowa cowboy has proven his place among the greatest ever.