Atkinson takes his "new age" to nationals |

Atkinson takes his "new age" to nationals

Harley Atkinson may have won a belt buckle as part of his state bareback riding title in the Utah High School State Rodeo Championships on Wednesday but that doesn’t mean he has to wear it.

Atkinson, whom crew-cut competitors identify as "the guy with the long hair," looks more like a skateboarder than a cowboy, and his interests run a little more alternative than country. (His cell phone plays heavy metal music, and he’ll admit he’s not exactly a Mark McGraw fan.)

"I’m more new age, I guess," laughed Atkinson in a phone interview Monday.

Throw him on a horse without a saddle, however, and it doesn’t matter what tune he jives to the kid rides like a natural-born cowboy.

The South Summit junior won his first bareback state championship on Wednesday, using his laidback nature to his advantage. After a tight battle with Caleb Bennett of the Spikers Club left him trailing by one point going into the final round, Atkinson earned near-perfect scores as Bennett faltered, giving the cool-headed Atkinson an 11-point victory.

His mother, Christy, described watching the competition with tears.

"We just think it’s awesome," she said. "He had some catching up to do, so you just had to sit and hold your breath. It was so great to see him win."

Atkinson will make his third appearance at the National Rodeo Championships, an honor awarded to the top 10 competitors in each event. After finishing tenth at nationals as a sophomore, the confident cowboy has his sights set on the winner’s saddle this year.

"If I go down there, get my nose in it, I should be OK," he said. His success, however, will also rely on luck. "A lot depends on the kind of horse you get," he conceded, since the difficulty of the horse is factored into the rider’s score.

Fortunately for Atkinson, he grew up in the perfect environment to develop a champion’s skill. The second-generation barebacker first learned to ride by watching his father, Brett, who rode semi-professionally in the 1980s. He was also mentored by two-time world champion Lan LaJeunesse, a family friend who still follows Atkinson’s progress.

"Lan definitely helped get me to where I am right now," Atkinson said. "I still talk to him all the time."

Also taking home the first-place saddle for South Summit was junior Dillon Hoffman, who won the team-roping contest with Rhett Anderson of Sevier. His first state championship also earned him his first appearance at nationals, but Hoffman says he isn’t nervous about facing the country’s best ropers.

"I love the adrenaline of it," he said. "That’s the best part."

Team Utah will travel to Springfield, Ill. July 22-28 to vie for its fifth national championship in eight years.

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