ZWINGLE, Iowa – The competitiveness that Tim O’Connell has in his soul is one reason why he’s a three-time world champion and is always a contender to add more gold buckles to his collection.
It’s what drives him and makes him push himself beyond the limits. It’s why he will return to the National Finals Rodeo for the ninth consecutive year. He will be in the mix for another bareback riding title when he arrives for the 10-day rodeo, set for Dec. 1-10 in Las Vegas.
His nature, though, tends to add an element that takes away from the enjoyment of the occasion. It’s the richest rodeo in the world with a payout of $1.4 million. Go-round winners will collect nearly $29,000 each night. With that comes a bit of a burden to excel.
“Until you get into a world-title race, it’s hard to describe the pressure you feel and that you put on yourself,” said O’Connell, 31, originally from Zwingle but now living in Marshall, Missouri, with his wife and two sons, Hazen and Stratten. “It’s one thing to make the NFR, but it’s another thing to be in a world-title race.
“I put an exceptional amount of pressure on me to be perfect, so that makes those 10 days very stressful.”
That changed with the sudden thump at last year’s finale. Big Stone Rodeo’s Mayhem bucked O’Connell off during Night 7 of the 2021 NFR, officially ending his hopes of walking away with another Montana Silversmiths gold buckle.
“One of the best things that ever happened to me in my career to this point was getting bucked off in Round 7,” said O’Connell, who credits a great deal of his success to his sponsors, Treetop Ranches, Frontier Rodeo Coffee, 12 Gauge Ranch, Polaris, Panhandle Rock and Roll Clothing, Justin Boots, Veach’s Custom Leather, Ingram Quarter Horses, MRT Racing Tires, Capri Campers, Twin Cities Featherlight, American Hat Co., Windmill Ceiling Fans, Farm Girl Marketing Solutions, Kleinschmidt Western Wear and Ranch Interior Designs.
“I had built up a lot of anger from what happened in 2020. When that horse put me on the ground, the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. I really enjoyed the last three go-rounds of the NFR. I didn’t have anything to lose. There was nothing that made me anxious about the draws. I joked a lot more in the locker room, and I really seemed to enjoy the finals for the first time.”
That episode did more than change his behavior last year. It carried over into the 2022 regular season, and he’s expecting it to ride with him when he arrives in Las Vegas.
“I’m looking forward to coming into this finals and remembering what it was like to have enjoyment at the finals,” he said. “I expect to show up there and get myself into a world-title picture again, hoping I can get off to a hotter start than I normally do. This time, I don’t have the other 14 guys looking at me as the target. I’m the hunter.
“We have an outstanding group of bareback riders going to the finals. It’s fun rodeoing with these guys.”
O’Connell had another fantastic year. It started off a bit weak, and an injury he sustained a year ago in which his tailbone was removed was a cause of that. He was able to turn things around during the lucrative Fourth of July run, and he steamrolled through the next month and a half.
“I was back to riding how I expect to ride on a daily basis,” he said. “I was drawing great. The summer couldn’t have gone any better. It was close to 90 days where I felt like I could do no wrong. I had a great Calgary and finished third there. I went back-to-back in Cheyenne (Wyoming) to get my third Cheyenne saddle. I think I was placing wherever I went.”
He was in the middle of a race to see which bareback rider would lead the world standings with his traveling partner, Jess Pope, and Cole Reiner as they rolled through August.
“It was fun,” said O’Connell, who attended Iowa Central Community College before becoming an intercollegiate champion at Missouri Valley College. “It was really fun when we were within $300 of each other. It just made for a fun little race. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of it, but you are jockeying to see who’s going to be called No. 1 the next week. We just kept banging heads.”
He was on top of the world when he suffered a freak injury during a ride Aug. 23 in Kennewick, Washington. He suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb and underwent surgery two days later. In an injury called “skier’s thumb,” he had a Grade 3 tear, and surgery was the best choice. That ended his regular season, and he fell from atop the bareback riding mountain to to No. 4 with $137,760.
Now on the injured reserve for the second straight year, he watched as other cowboys passed him in the standings. Stress never entered the equation. He found the positives in what many would consider a negative situation. He and his wife, Sami, had welcomed baby Stratten into their family in April, and time at home meant time spent with his bride and their sons.
“Every time I left in the heart of the summer, Sami was left home with a 4-year-old and a newborn that didn’t want to sleep,” O’Connell said. “It was nice to be able to come home and give her some relief.
“Stratten might be the most chill child. The only time he fusses is when he’s hungry. We’re sleep-training now, but he didn’t sleep through the night for a while. Hazen loves him. Hazen took on the big-brother role as perfect as you could ask of a big brother.”
After weeks of rehabilitation and therapy, O’Connell got on his first horse in 11 weeks during an early November practice session. By the time he arrives in Las Vegas for opening night, he will have tried his repaired thumb at four horses and will have confidence in the digit’s reconstruction.
“I’m back on my spur board, I’m back in the gym again and I’m back on the bucking machine,” he said “Everything’s going ahead as planned … actually a little ahead of what I’d planned. I consult a lot with Shawn Scott (with the Justin Sportsmedicine team), and we’re very pleased. I got on that practice horse to see if my hand would hold together. Everything we wanted to do was a huge success.”
Through all the challenges he’s faced this year, O’Connell has found the blessings. Having surgery so quickly helped his rehab time, and getting to enjoy so much time with his family was good for his heart and soul.
But being away from the game he loves has served as another form of motivation for the three-time champ. He has his mind focused and is enjoying the game of rodeo. He’s ready to see what will happen during those magical 10 nights in the Nevada desert.
“The world title is anyone’s ballgame,” O’Connell said. “There’s not a single weak link in this group of 15 guys going to the finals. In my head, I see it being a 10-round war with five or six guys in it at the end.” He expects to be one of them.