ZWINGLE, Iowa – In the fall of 2014, Tim O’Connell was a 23-year-old cowboy about to embark on the trip of a lifetime.
He had qualified for the National Finals Rodeo for the first time and had a limited idea of what to expect when he arrived in Las Vegas that December. He’d never felt the excitement of what it means to ride out of those legendary yellow bucking chutes. He’d never experienced the rush of energy that came from the 18,000 fans packed into the Thomas & Mack Center.
Fast forward to the present: He will return to the Nevada desert for the 10th straight time and has three world championships and three NFR average titles on his resume.
“I’m just as excited for the 10th as I was my first,” said O’Connell, 32, originally from Zwingle but living in Marshall, Missouri, with his wife, Sami, and their sons, Hazen and Stratten. “I don’t know how many bareback riders have ever done 10 straight, but this is a pretty big deal.”
Each of the past two years, he missed quite a bit of prep time before the NFR because of injuries. He had surgery in 2021 to remove his tailbone after it was fractured in August. Last year, he had thumb surgery toward the end of the regular season. He didn’t want to have that type of delay this year, so he did something about it.
“When I left Sioux Falls (South Dakota at the end of September), I went straight to Tijuana (Mexico) and got some stem-cell injections just to help my body heal and relax at a faster rate,” he said. “It is hard to get through an entire season without getting hurt in some way or another, whether it’s a big injury like the last two years or just getting banged up.
“When I got home, I took a week off to start October. I let my body relax for a week, then I picked up my training, getting back in the gym five days a week and building my muscles back up to get my body into the flow. I didn’t really do anything related to rodeo in October, so I just got to spend time with my children, spend time with my wife and just enjoy being home.”
Rodeo is a rough sport to play, but bareback riding is the toughest on the body. Cowboys wear specially designed gloves with binds and wedge their hands into a rigging that is strapped tightly to the horse. They are virtually locked onto the animal, and each jump, kick, twist and turn is felt on the body.
Cowboys are judged by how well they spur in rhythm with the animal’s bucking motion, so being in the best physical shape is important. When O’Connell suffered a torn left groin early in the year at Denver, he battled through and found a way to compete. In April, he made the first of two trips to Tijuana and allowed the stem-cell injections to go to work.
It paid off, and he finished the regular season with $159,326, good enough for fourth in the world standings. He trails the world standings leader, rookie Keenan Hayes, by more than $100,000, but that ground can be made up in a hurry with go-round winners earning nearly $31,000 for 10 December nights.
“Realistically, I have a real shot for another gold buckle,” said O’Connell, who attended Iowa Central Community College and won the bareback riding national title in 2015 for Missouri Valley College. “With the amount of money the NFR puts up, there’s no such thing as a safe lead, and I’m just going to go at it with that in mind.
“I’ve gone into the finals unhealthy; just being 100 days off surgery is not the right amount of time to get on bucking horses for a world title. I did some things out of character in my riding trying to make up ground, and I put myself in situations that cost me a lot of money and shots at world titles. I’m feeling healthy right now. I’m very calm; I’m the calm hunter, not the hunted. I really feel that I can go in there and do my thing and leave there as a four-time world champion.”
He began his ProRodeo career in 2012, but he’d been around rodeo all his life. His father was a pickup man, and O’Connell had been to countless events before he ever nodded his head in competition. He’s ridden small animals and large, and he’s proven what it means to be a cowboy. He also knows that special feeling he gets by strapping on a Montana Silversmiths gold buckle, the wearable trophy only given to world champions each year.
“I think I’ve accomplished all my childhood goals, those goals I got when I was that little boy at the rodeo with his dad, watching the rodeo through the panels and watching his dad pick up,” said O’Connell, who credits a great deal of his success to his sponsors, Treetop Ranches, Frontier Rodeo Coffee, 12 Guage Ranch, Panhandle and Rock & 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 & Co. Interiors.
“I wanted to make the National Finals, and I wanted to be a world champion. I definitely accomplished those goals. As I sit today, I have goals in my mind that still need to be met. I think that’s adapting, that’s maturing and that’s just never settling.”
As he prepares for his 10th straight NFR, there have been adjustments to his lifestyle over the years. Where he once spent continuous weeks and, possibly, months on the road chasing his dreams, he now finds time to spend with his loved ones. Once he and Sami began their family, that became a priority.
Injuries in 2019, ’21 and ’22 – combined with extensive time away from the game in 2020 because of COVID – afforded him the chance to hang with those closest to him. This year, he made the time to go home.
“I don’t stay on the road; I’m always home,” he said. “When I’m done for the week, I find the first flight out, and I go home, whether it’s for one day or three days or even a couple of hours. It doesn’t matter. I may not have had the extended time I’ve had the last couple of years, but I got home. At the same time, I was definitely rodeoing a lot more this year, too.”
Rodeo is his business. It’s how he cares for his family, and he’s doing it at a great time. Purses have increased exponentially. It took $111,000 for the 15th man on the money list to squeak into the NFR field, and he did that by less than $1,700.
There are no guarantees in rodeo. The only way to earn a paycheck is to beat most of the field, and contestants must pay a fee in order to compete. They also pay their own travel and living expenses while they’re on the road. Having more money up for grabs is a big thing for the men and for the sport.
“It took $61,000 to make the NFR my first year,” O’Connell said. “Rodeo is headed in the direction we all dreamed it could. Ten years ago, most of the guys going spent whatever they made to make the NFR. Now, there are a lot of guys actually making a living during the regular season and not having to rely on what they make at the finals to see if they had a good year.
“I think rodeo is better than it’s ever been. I think that’s a trend that will continue.”
O’Connell is one of bareback riding’s elite cowboys. He’s proven himself time and time again, and he gets another chance Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas.
“I’ve realized the best version of me is to just go out there and just be me,” he said. “It’s just you and a bucking horse in the arena. Go do what you can in the eight seconds with the animal that’s underneath you and let the chips fall where they will.”