Las Vegas — It was a gold rush for Canadians at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
In a city where the stakes are high, and anything can happen, three of the eight rodeo contestants who qualified for this year’s season-end playoffs rode out of town with gold buckles, while the haul for the whole crew topped the million dollar mark. It was the best ever showing for the Canuck contingent at the rich event.
Team ropers Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler were already in the history books as the first all-Canadian team to make the NFR, but they carved an even bigger spot in the records when they parlayed the success they found on opening night all the way to a world championship. By tying for first in the final round Saturday night with a 4.3 second run, they claimed first place in the high-paying average, completing the 10 rounds in 54.2 seconds on their nine successful catches for a $67,269 bonus.
“I knew where we were in the average,” said Simpson, who was raised in Claresholm, but now makes his home in Ponoka. “But I was kind of oblivious to the world title race.”
“When I was riding in the box, I was focused on the same thing as every day. Just win as much money as we could. We went down there wanting to rope cows, have fun, and win some money.”
With only one team following Simpson and his heeler with the famous beard, it soon became clear they’d won the average. So they were back out in the arena to receive the saddles for that and pose for pictures.
“I still didn’t think it was possible that we’d won everything. They took us for our TV interview, and I thought it was for the average win. Then they basically said ‘you’re on, and you’re the world champs’”.
On top of the countless doors and opportunities that will be opened to the new World Champions, the $186,000 each earned at the NFR will have a huge impact.
“For us, it means my wife not having to go back to work, and we won’t be needing a babysitter for Annie. That’s the most important thing for me. I went there trying to win enough to accomplish that, and we got that done, and a bit of a safety net. That will allow them to enjoy this lifestyle with me, and will help us get back down the road.”
Canadian team ropers have had a struggle in their homeland getting equal money and, often, respect at rodeos. In the U.S., they rope for the same purse as all other events. The duo’s impressive win should cause quite a ripple effect.
“I hope it does wonders for team roping in Canada. The huge support we have, and the fact team roping is growing in popularity in Canada, and the level of roping is getting better all the time, should raise awareness.”
“Our win should make it that much more real for every Canadian team roper to know that it is possible, and we just got it done.”
“To compete at that level, with that kind of prize money, and have the success we did, is just unbelievable. Jerry and I worked hard, and it finally paid off.”
One the aspect of the game both ropers zeroed in on this year was the mental preparation, and Simpson believes that made a huge difference in their performance.
“My wife was the biggest help, getting me books to read on it. Every day she gave me a card with a quote or saying, and a picture of Annie to put in my shirt pocket.”
It was that seemingly small gesture which played a big role in calming Simpson before his final run.
“The quote was one I’d read several times that week. ‘Successful athletes are able to control their emotions, and behaviour. They focus on what they can control, and don’t allow things out of their control to affect them.’ ”
That’s exactly what Simpson and Buhler did, and it allowed them to experience a victory far greater than they had even imagined possible coming in from 14th and 12th place positions. Meantime, their fellow Canadian team roper, Kolton Schmidt, didn’t have the week he wanted. But the young header and, his partner Shay Carroll, did set the fastest time of the week, with their 3.6 second winning run in the ninth go-round.
Zeke Thurston felt ‘knowing what to expect’ was going to be a big benefit to his second NFR, and it showed. The newly married 22-year-old rode nine of his 10 horses, finishing Saturday night with an 86 point ride to tie for third place in the final round. Then when season leader and defending champion Jacobs Crawley was flagged by judges for missing his horse out, Thurston came up first in the average, and then by the slim margin of $3,000, also took over top place in the world standings with $265,449, giving him his first gold buckle. The second-generation qualifier earned $150,404 in Las Vegas, which will help furnish the new home he and his bride will move into when they get home to Big Valley.
Meanwhile, B.C.’s Jake Watson rode consistently well at his first NFR, collecting more than $126,000, and finishing second to Thurston in the average, and fifth in the world. New Canadian champion Clay Elliott of Nanton cashed in at Vegas for $49,712, and a go-round buckle.
Ponoka-raised Jake Vold grabbed his share of Las Vegas glory as well, including three straight round buckles in bareback riding. He finished second for the world, and tied for second in the average, worth a $48,865 bonus, pushing his NFR earnings to $165,340. Manitoba’s Orin Larsen was also able to achieve big success, despite separating a rib on opening night. He placed in the last five rounds, including a win, and finished third for the world standings.
Tim O’Connell of Iowa won the buckle, and set a new record for bareback season earnings with $374,272. Louisiana’s Tyler Waguespack swept steer wrestling honours, plus he claimed the Top Gun award for being the highest money winner of the Finals, at $213,218. The most popular Grandma in rodeo, 68-year-old Mary Burger, hung on to win the second barrel racing title in her career, while Sage Kimzey of Oklahoma came through to win his third straight bull riding buckle. Three-time Canadian champion Tyson Durfey came all the way from 14th to win his first tie-down roping world buckle, while team roping Junior Nogueira of Brazil became the All-Around champion.