LAS VEGAS – For the first time in more than two years, bareback rider Tim O’Connell won a go-round at the National Finals Rodeo.
It’s been a rarity in the career of the three-time world champion from Zwingle, Iowa. His last title came during Round 2 of the 2020 NFR in Arlington, Texas. On Friday night, he made up for it with an 88-point ride on Stace Smith’s Star Witness to claim the ninth round.
“That was fun,” he said, noting that Star Witness was a re-ride after his first bronc, J Bar J Rodeo’s Soul Lunatic, didn’t perform up to par. “The first one had an off day; I just had three off days in a row, so I ain’t blaming the horse.
“I just had a feeling. I didn’t really know if Star Witness was going to be enough horse, but when he rolled in there, he had a feeling about him. He was feeling his oats when he got in (the chute) today.”
That was a nice change, but O’Connell and the Texas horse matched up well. During Sunday’s fifth round, O’Connell’s traveling partner, Jess Pope, rode the horse for 85.5 points. Everything came together strong for O’Connell.
“When I hit my rigging with my hips, I knew I was going to do something big,” said O’Connell of Zwingle, Iowa. “Things just felt right. He had a rear out of there, and I grabbed ahold of him (with his feet) , and he had to jump through my feet for the first time. When he did that, my feet came back ans whacked that rigging handle. I heard my inner voice go, ‘If you get a chance, it is right now; just send it home.’
“My little bull rider came out in me when he turned back to the right, and I picked up his timing. I saw my left foot rolling, so I knew my right foot was rolling.”
It paid off to the tune of $28,914. He pushed his NFR earnings to just shy of $72,000. He crossed the $200,000 mark in season earnings and is sixth in the aggregate race with one night left. If he stays in that position, he will add a bonus of $18,188 Saturday night.
Even when he wasn’t winning money, O’Connell found a way to enjoy the experience. In the past, his tunnel-visioned approach to winning world championships seemed to take the joy away from him. He made a change.
“I think it is the new Tim O’Connell,” he said. “I’m not going to sweat the small stuff. I was tired of coming to the National Finals Rodeo and having my enjoyment be based upon what four people say It was. I’ve been to eight finals, and I told my wife last year, I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed being out here.
“I told myself that no matter what, control your controllables. Understand what your controllables are. If you are doing your job, that is perfect. If you make a mistake because you were trying too hard, that’s perfect, too. I can know that no matter what happens (Saturday), I didn’t leave a single thing in that arena. I gave my whole heart and soul.”
That’s what defines a champion.