Fans of professional bull riding say this sport is like no other.
They use words like rugged, all-American, proud, untamed, time-honored and cool.
But if bull riding is a sport, is a bull an athlete?
The cowboys who try to stay on those bucking, snorting behemoths for just eight seconds answer with a resounding “yes.”
You can see for yourself this weekend, when the Professional Bull Riders Association brings the biggest, baddest bulls in the country to the EagleBank Arena in Fairfax.
“I look at the bulls, and I’m sure everyone else does as well, as athletes too. They are very athletic,” veteran bull rider Sean Willingham tells Weekender. “They have a job as well in our sport, and they show up to buck their best every time.”
It’s the battle between some of the toughest beasts and some of the toughest cowboys in the world.
Riders get injured regularly, making football or hockey look like a church social.
Willingham, born in 1981 in Oklahoma and raised in Georgia, has been riding since he was 14 years old.
He was the youngest rider ever to win the Amateur Association Rodeo, and went to the National High School Rodeo finals every year in high school. He turned pro at age 18.
And since that time, he’s won multiple events—and broken his neck, cracked his skull, torn his meniscus and broken his ribs, tibia, collarbone, fingers, toes, ankle and wrist.
But he keeps riding the lightning. He loves it.
“I wanted to play in the NBA as a kid,” he recalls. “As a freshman, I started riding bulls and it eventually took over all my desires in other sports.”
There is a uniqueness to bull riding. A vibe. The mystique and allure of the lonely, tough cowboy and the frontier.
And of course, the bulls. If you haven’t been to a PBR event, you’re missing out. They’re just incredible, beautiful and well, scary animals.
And to most of us mortals, the idea of getting on one is beyond insane.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” said Willingham of the bulls. “You are dealing with an animal that is up to 2,000 pounds, and they can possibly kill you, if not hurt you very badly. So we have a lot of respect for the bovines that we are riding.”
Still, just like competitors and rivals in any sport, respect doesn’t always translate to affection. The cowboys don’t take their competitors home with them.
In other words, just because the bulls can be kind of cute, in a “pug-ugly-cute” kind of way, don’t think the riders are forming attachments.
“I don’t know them personally—like I don’t hang out with them, we don’t eat lunch together or anything,” said Willingham. “Aside from trying to ride them for eight seconds, that’s about as close as we get!”
A professional rider’s life away from those moments of competition is spent much like other athletes, Willingham said. He works out a lot—including circuit training and cardio. But even in workouts, the PBR lifestyle requires a unique mindset.
“I don’t really lift weights, because in bull riding you don’t really want to be big...You want to have quickness. So I think going to the gym and punching the speed bag helps with the quickness.
“It’s almost working out like you’re going to a wrestling match or UFC fight match.”
Willingham will, of course, be only one among many riding this weekend. The riders are competing for points in the championship series, and drawing close to a hotly contested chase to become world champion.
And it truly is a world champion, not just U.S.—this weekend’s event will feature riders from all over the world. The international component of PBR is strong; more than 600 cowboys from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia and other countries hold PBR membership.
And while each rider has their own strategy as they mount up, Willingham said his approach is: instinct. He’s got as little as possible in his mind as he’s getting on them.
“I am just focused on trying to ride the bull for eight seconds, matching him move for move. Right before, I am just getting pumped up and getting in the zone to try to stay on for eight seconds and match what the bull throws at me.”
Words of wisdom.
A word to the families interested in attending: PBR competitions are extremely family-friendly events. The language is clean, the riders polite (and often available for autographs after the event) and the rodeo clowns a treat.
There’s even a “master of ceremonies” rodeo clown, who acts as entertainment and narrator in quiet moments. He’s genuinely funny.
Bottom line: PBR will be a rootin’ tootin’ good time, with thrills for all ages.
“Be sure to come watch us in Fairfax, Va., and watch what we do for a living,” said Willingham. “You will see some of the best athletes, from the riders to the bulls.”