Reading, writing ‘n rodeo
Eight seconds doesn’t seem like much until you’re sitting atop an angry bull dead-set on bucking you off. But for the hardy high school athletes who gathered last week in Heber for the Utah High School Rodeo Association (UHSRA) state finals, it was just another day at the rodeo.
Carlee Dick and Jordan Page of the South Summit Rodeo Club galloped out of the far end of the arena, chasing down their steer and roping him cleanly in 9.62 seconds in one of the final runs of the team roping event. Nearby, another group of cowboys warmed up behind the bucking chutes, where they would soon be strapping on to some big bulls.
One of the young bull riders was prepping by visualizing his performance. Standing in the dirt, he simulated riding a bucking bull, boot heels mashing up dust, his left hand down at the crotch with the other waving high, legs working hard to grip the imaginary bull.
The very un-imaginary bulls snorted furiously nearby as extra cowboys waved hats at them, directing them out of the holding pens and down the chutes, their horns ringing against the railings as they were penned individually next to the platform. The first rider mounted and the others huddled around tensely until the gate banged open and he was off. The boys hollered support from the railing while the crowd cheered.
"[Rodeo] is like any sport," said Ben German, president of the UHSRA. "It helps the kids build character and responsibility These kids need to learn how to take care of their horses the ones that are in the timed events. [The kids] learn to set goals and accomplish goals."
More than 750 high school students from all over Utah take part in about 32 clubs that compete throughout the school year. Athletes finishing in the top 10 percent of the point total for each event qualify for the state finals around 330 kids this year held at the Wasatch County Fairgrounds in Heber.
Rodeo competition is a club sport at the high school level with no JV or varsity structure, and is open to all grades, with freshman through senior athletes competing openly against one another. A club often represents a geographic region of Utah and comprises more than one high school. The season begins in August and runs through Memorial Day with a short October break and often there are two rodeos a weekend. This means that, for students and parents, it’s a grueling season. It takes a serious time commitment, causes a lot of bodily fatigue and costs a lot of money, says German.
Brad Nicholes, a public relations representative for UHSRA and the father of South Summit student-athlete, Brady Nicholes, said that "it’s expensive," estimating that he has a gasoline bill for the season somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. But he added that it was worth it. To help defer expenses the UHSRA awards scholarships to all seniors who apply. The scholarships range from $100 to $1,000 and totaled around $30,000 this year. Even some students who competed during the year but didn’t qualify for the state finals received some scholarship money.
Brady, for his part, has taken advantage of the opportunity, placing first in state in saddle bronc riding and will represent Utah at nationals the top four finishers in each event qualify in Wyoming in July (see below). He will attend Panhandle University in Oklahoma in the fall on a full-ride rodeo scholarship. He has already "filled" his Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) pro card, meaning he has already met the requirements of the PRCA, winning $1,000 in prize money within a year, in order to be eligible to compete on the professional circuit.
Another high-profile Utah athlete to watch in nationals is bull rider Tim Bingham of the Spikers Rodeo Club from the Ogden area. He has qualified the last five years in a row, originally at the junior-high level, going to nationals his eighth-grade year, and has made nationals every year at the high school level. He has yet to win his event in nationals, placing as high as third, but will have another chance this July.
Utah has fared exceptionally well at nationals in the past, winning the overall state final in six of the last 10 years, but will have to contend with arch-rival Texas, which has won the national title the other four years. According to German, Utah is something of a powerhouse in the rodeo world. Many athletes cultivated from within the ranks of the state’s high school rodeo association have gone on to compete successfully at the professional level, including two-time world bull riding champion Wesley Silcox, of Payson, Utah, currently fourth in the world standings this year. Silcox won the Utah state bull riding title during his senior year in 2002 and finished fourth overall in the National High School Finals Rodeo that year.
German said this year’s group of kids going to nationals has a good shot at taking yet another title for Utah.
“Even the dogs were celebrating the reemergence of the sun.”