STEVENSVILLE, Mont. – In the last 10 years, bareback rider Richmond Champion has missed the National Finals Rodeo just twice; ailments had kept him out of action both times.
Coming off an injury that forced him to the sidelines in 2022, he rebounded strong. He returned to the game in late-December, then battled through this past season to return to ProRodeo’s grand finale for the eighth time.
In the past 12 months, he tested his skills as a television analyst, providing expert commentary for last year’s NFR preshow for Teton Ridge, and he spent quality time with his wife, Paige. The proof arrived Sept. 7 in the form of Forrest Brooks Champion, a little boy weighing 6 pounds, 12 ounces.
“He showed up at the beginning of the last month of the season, and life has never been the same,” said Champion, 30, of Stevensville. “Every day is something new; it’s never boring. I think I average about 40 miles a week walking, and I think 38 of those miles are in the house.”
Parents with a newborn will do about anything to bring comfort to their baby, and providing soothing steps is just one method the Champions use. For now, young Forrest is on his own sleeping schedule, which seems to coincide with how Dad sleeps when he’s traveling the rodeo trail. If the baby can keep that up for a few more weeks, that would be great.
“If we can maintain that sleep pattern all the way through the NFR, that would be great because Vegas nights can get long,” Champion said with a laugh.
He and his wife went old-school when they found out they were expecting. They didn’t rely on sonograms to tell them the baby’s gender; they opted to wait until birth. The best part was that Richmond was home when Paige went into labor.
“I was actually planning to leave the day he was born,” said Champion, who attended Tarleton State University on a rodeo scholarship. “I was up in Lewiston, Idaho, that day. Paige woke me up at 11:30 at night on (September) sixth and said her water broke, and he came at 6 o’clock on the morning of the seventh.”
That’s just a bit of happenstance for Champion. He was home at the right time, which isn’t always the case for rodeo cowboys, men who make a living on the road for weeks at a time. He stayed with his family for an extra day, opting out of riding in western Idaho, and drove straight through to Puyallup, Washington, for his next competition.
“Everything’s been amazing,” he said. “As far as the season, it was just a big year from coming back from injury. I really wanted to use last year and the beginning of this year to transform my riding in a way that it would support my neck, and, obviously, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. All the guys I’m riding against keep getting better, so I need to stay at it.”
In the spring of 2022, Champion learned about a bulging disc in the middle of his neck that required surgery and months to heal. It is a consequence that comes with being a bareback rider, men who wedge their specially designed gloves into a tight, rawhide rigging that is strapped tightly to a bucking horse. Arms and shoulders and upper bodies are jerked around; it’s recognized as the rodeo event that is toughest on the body.
By making slight changes to his riding, he was able to do the things necessary to not only improve on his ability, but also to protect his body in the process. The result was $111,688 and the No. 15 spot in the world standings – the latter is significant, because only the top 15 on the money list at the end of the regular season advance to the NFR.
“I’ve never gone into Vegas being 15th, but it’s also the most money I’ve had won in the regular season,” said Champion, who credits part of his success to his sponsors, Cinch, Hooey, Yeti and Hyer Boots. “I think that says something about our sport. I was talking to my brother the other day, and he said, ‘On the plus side, you can’t leave Las Vegas lower in the standings than you’re going in, so you’ve got nothing to lose. You may as well go for it.’ ”
Doug Champion’s comment hit a note with his little brother. With go-rounds paying nearly $31,000 per day for 10 December nights, the NFR offers a great opportunity to cash in. The last time he competed in Las Vegas two years ago, Richmond Champion pocketed $80,000.
“I’m just excited about going back,” he said. “I got a lot of confirmation on this this year. Being one of the older guys, you start questioning whether you’ve still got it with so many of the younger guys that are doing so well this year.
“I feel like I can hang with the Rocker Steiners and Kade Sonniers and Keenan Hayeses, so I’m excited that I’ve got another chance to show it.”
The maturation of a rodeo cowboy comes through the experiences he has faced over a career. A decade ago, he was the young gun in the field, a 20-year-old bareback rider still feeling the high of being the first person to win $1 million at The American. Now, he’s a veteran who understands what it takes to perform well no matter the style of horse under him.
“I don’t think there was really just one thing that was the key to the success I had this year,” Champion said. “Having last year off and not really caring about rodeo in a sense gave me the amount of time away from it that I needed. I wasn’t trying to rush back, because that would have only hampered me.
“I turned out a lot of horses that I didn’t think fit me because I was trying to protect my neck and ease back into things. I knew this summer was going to get busy, and I could just feel myself gaining momentum. All of the sudden, I was riding to my full potential, and when that happened, I really started drawing some good horses.”
It was the perfect storm that will culminate inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, home of the NFR since 1985. This year’s 10-round title fight begins Dec. 7, three months to the day after Forrest Champion was born.
There’s new life in the Champions’ world, and they’re experiencing it through professional rodeo.
“I was watching film the other morning at 4:30, when Forrest thought it would be a good time to be awake,” Champion said. “As I watched my rides from 2019 to ’21, I thought it was crazy the way the body protected itself and that my neck had been bothering me for a long time but that I didn’t notice. I can see it now.
“It was such subtle changes, but I feel like I’m riding better than I have in at least four years, maybe more. I really critique my rides and my practice, and I feel like I’m riding more like I was in 2014 than I was in 2021.”
He may not ride as fearlessly as he did a decade ago, but he still rides confidently. That’s the sub-plot to what it takes to wear a world champion’s gold buckle. He’s writing his own script, and he anticipates this year’s grand finale as each day passes.
“I just feel better and hungrier and more prepared because I’m doing the right things to prepare,” Champion said. “Now, I have more confidence in what I’m doing, and I know that it works. I’m ready to show that when we get to Vegas.”