STEVENSVILLE, Mont. – A nerve injury that forced him out of the final round of the National Finals Rodeo was not how Richmond Champion wanted to end his 2020 season.
Alas, it’s the reality he faced and the memories he carried over into this season, one that saw him more than meet his expectations and allows him an opportunity to battle for the world title at this year’s NFR, set for Dec. 2-11 in Las Vegas.
He rode the waves of success as they ebbed and flowed through the course of the campaign. A month away from competition last January helped heal stretched nerves he acquired in a rough-and-tumble run at the NFR’s one-time home in Arlington, Texas, last December. He returned to action and started the winning process right away.
“I knew before I got to (the Montana) Circuit Finals a month after the NFR that I wasn’t going to have an issue,” said Champion, 28, of Stevensville. “Once I got on in the first round of the circuit finals, there was no question in my mind that the nerve had healed.”
That was the starting point for the season. He won the first round in Kalispell, Montana, and placed in the other two to finish second in the average race. He secured the year-end championship and his qualification to the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, where he won the bareback riding title and got a leg up on the competition in the world standings.
“That was a big deal,” he said. “It was my first time ever going to the RAM Finals. By winning the Montana Circuit, it was my first circuit title ever, then to go to Kissimmee (Florida) and get it won on the first time was awesome. That was definitely a savior throughout the season … that and the Riggin’ Rally (in Weatherford, Texas) right before the RAM Finals.
“Just this spring and fall treated me really well. It went cold in the hottest months of the year. That’s part of it. It’s always a challenge. It’s something new every year, and you’ve got to keep your head on straight and stay with what you know.”
He did, then he closed out his campaign by winning the ProRodeo Tour Finale at the California Rodeo Salinas. It was the perfect way to end the regular season that featured a roller coaster of emotions and outcomes. There were moments when success was fleeting, but he was able to battle through the challenges.
Sometimes, though, all it took was a call home to his wife, Paige, a Canadian Olympic figure skater who understands what it means to compete at a world-class level; she competed in pairs skating at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Though she no longer competes at such a high level, her experiences have helped her in her current role.
“It’s a damn good thing I married a performance coach,” said Champion, who also credits his sponsors – Yeti, Hooey and Tony Lama – with helping him get down the rodeo trail. “This year featured a lot of refocusing. By the time I got to Salinas (on the final weekend of the regular season in late September), I was just there to do my job.
“At that point in the season, the things to complain about are really long, and I just decided to pick the positive things. I just felt like I had something to prove to myself at that point.”
He made his point, pocketing just shy of $17,000. That pushed his annual salary to $98,945, and he will arrive in Las Vegas seventh in the world standings. Maybe it’s coincidence, but this also marks his seventh appearance at ProRodeo’s grand championship.
His first qualification came in 2014 when he was still getting his start. He rocked the rodeo world at the inaugural The American by becoming the only qualifier to win an event, pocking $100,000 for the title and cashing in on the entire $1 million side pot. Though that money didn’t count toward the world standings, it was a great motivator that eventually turned into his initial NFR qualification.
Many things have changed since then, most of them good. Of his six previous trips to the grand finale, Champion has finished among the top 5 in the final world standings four times.
“I’m not 21 anymore; I’m a veteran, and I want to ride like a veteran,” he said. “I’ll still be nervous and excited for that first round. I think about the excitement and the energy, and I try to feed of that. I have a lot less questions in my mind. I know what my routine is. I’m ready to get there, get settled and get going. I know how fast it goes the second week. Once the first round goes, then all of the sudden you’re at Round 7.
“I’m really looking forward to being back at the Thomas & Mack with that experience and that confidence. I’ve never been a huge regular-season standout. I’m really consistent about going into the finals in fifth to seventh place, and I love that finals atmosphere. I’m looking forward to getting the ball rolling.”
It’s been almost two months since the regular season came to a close, and Champion has been diligent in his preparation for riding 10 of the greatest bucking horses in the world over a 10-day span. He’s been in the gym, consulted with his trainers and prepared his mind and his body for the tasks that will be at hand over those spectacular December nights in Las Vegas.
The ultimate prize – the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle awarded to the world champions each year – has eluded him so far. It’s more than a dream to win that. It’s a reckoning, and his focus is on achieving that wearable trophy.
“To win the gold buckle, you have to come out hot and stay hot,” said Champion, who trails the world standings leader, Tilden Hooper, by $63,007; NFR go-round winners will pocket around $27,000. “I’ve got two and a half rounds to make up. You’ve got to do well in the rounds, and that means winning rounds, and you have to win the average.
“You’re going to have to dominate and turn the tide, because all those guys can really ride. If you go out there and take care of business, dominate seven or eight rounds, then you have a good chance to win the world title.” He knows the game and how to play it, and that’s going to be one of the driving forces to whatever success he finds in the Nevada desert.