This has not been a usual year for veteran pro rodeo bareback rider Richmond Champion. He’s had more time off than usual, and ridden in some smaller rodeos than usual due to the pandemic. But one thing is the same, beginning on December 3 and running through December 12, the National Finals Rodeo will be held and Champion will be there. Of course ‘there’ isn’t the usual Thomas and Mack Arena in Las Vegas.
Instead, the Wrangler NFR will be held at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. This is the arena where the Texas Rangers play baseball and normally seats more than 80,000 people. However, in this age of COVID, the number attending the nightly performances will be much less and there will be social distancing throughout the stands.
Champion is originally from Texas but now lives in Stevensville with his wife, Paige Lawrence. She was a pairs figure skater for Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He said that once he arrives in Texas, he, and the rest of the contestants will be tested. Then there will be random testing throughout the event. If someone tests positive, they are finished competing.
“We will all go in lockdown,” Champion said. “The risk of being sent home is too great. There won’t be any autograph signings or promotions like there usually are.”
The professional rodeo circuit shut down in early March when RODEO Houston was closed midway through the rodeo and livestock show. Other large rodeos were also shut down and it wasn’t until early summer that the smaller rodeos began back up.
“Normally I fly (to rodeos) about 20 times,” said Champion. “This year I flew once. My traveling partner, Caleb Bennett of Corvallis, and I put 60,000 miles on our vehicles this year.”
He said that they went to a lot of smaller rodeos, a large number of them in Kansas and Nebraska, with prize money between $1,000 and $5,000. At times, with all of the expenses, “it probably made more sense to get a job. But those little rodeos were so happy to have us there, I gained a real appreciation for them.”
With the early spring lockdown, Champion changed up his training. Where he normally would be maintaining his strength throughout the long season, he focused on making goals and gains for strength and stamina. He has worked with a trainer out of Canada and said the month and a half of hard core training really helped him. And spending lots of time on the Bitterroot River fishing didn’t hurt either.
Champion goes into the NFR ranked No. 7 in the world. His season earnings are $64,149.08. Last year, he finished fourth in the world standings with $238.983. He was third in the Wrangler NFR average and earned $108,154. He won Round 1 and placed in three other rounds of the 10-round event. In 2018, he finished fifth in the world standings, and in $268,511. He has made the top 15 in bareback riding every year since 2016.
With COVID affecting so many events this year, the rodeo world changed up some of their events as well. There were several event specific events including a Riggin’ Rally in Texas in May and then one in Darby in September. These events featured the top bareback riders in the world. Champion said these events were a lot of fun, especially the Gold Buckle Knock Out put on by Cervi Rodeo Championship Rodeo Company since he won that event.
“Bareback riding has never had anything done just for them until this year. I do think there will be more. There is so much talent in the bareback riding, and the horses just seem to be getting better and better.”