CHEYENNE – Sage Kimzey went straight from the roughstock ready area under the east stands of Frontier Park Arena to the Justin Sports Medicine trailer a short walk away.
The six-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association bull riding world champion has been dealing with a right ankle injury and wanted to get it worked on after his 77-point ride Tuesday afternoon. He spent nearly an hour getting the ankle treated.
Kimzey’s story is not uncommon. It’s not a matter of if a rodeo contestant gets hurt, it’s a matter of when and how badly.
Treating those injuries and generally caring for the body isn’t easy. Rodeo athletes are constantly on the road, going from one rodeo to the next in their quests to qualify for the year-end National Finals Rodeo. Not only do they log hundreds of thousands of miles of travel time each year, most rodeos are night-time affairs, and restaurants with healthier options are often scarce by the time they end.
Rodeo athletes are left to make the best of a bad situation, and many have found ways to care for their injuries, work to prevent them and eat right.
“We’re getting on 200-plus bulls per year and traveling all the time,” the 26-year-old Kimzey said. “The travel schedule and time schedule aren’t easy, and the sport is difficult. Everything is kind of stacked against us.
“My body doesn’t move or recover the way it did when I was 18 years old, and hadn’t had any major injuries yet. For me, it’s all about getting my body moving correctly.”
Kimzey has started working with personal trainer Doug Champion of Champion Living Fitness. Champion has competed as a bareback rider in the PRCA, and is the brother of six-time NFR bareback rider Richmond Champion. He knows the demands of the sport, and focuses on strength training in the winter months and flexibility during the season.
“I stretch around 30 minutes per day, and that keeps things loosened up where I can move properly,” Kimzey said.
Bull rider Jordan Spears and his traveling partner, Ruger Piva, wanted to get consistent strength training and cardio workouts in while they go down the road, so they researched chain gyms and found that Planet Fitness has the most locations where they compete or along the way. They’ll log a few miles on the treadmill before going over to the weights and working on their legs, core and lower back muscles.
“We do short, sharp, crisp, explosive moves and not super-heavy weight,” Spears said. “The most important thing for bull riders is core and lower back, because you really ride bulls with your lower half.
“It’s not all about the strength, either. It’s about having strength in the muscles that help you stay balanced and counter the bulls’ moves.”
In Spears’ mind, rodeo athletes must make conscious decisions to properly fuel and take care of their bodies the same way other professional athletes do. That means going the extra mile to eat healthy.
Bull rider JC Mortensen, 20, reaches for tuna packets or traveling partner Daylon Swearingen’s protein bars whenever he needs to fuel up on the go. He doesn’t drink soda, but loads up on water whenever he can.
Kimzey has a stove in his RV, and typically starts his day with a yogurt parfait, followed by a light lunch. He tries to eat a good dinner a few hours before he competes. His RV’s pantry is stocked with healthier snack options.
“I don’t go overboard with my diet, but I do watch what I eat mainly because I feel better when I’m eating healthier food,” he said. “You just have to make the conscious decision to skip the greasy cheeseburger and reach for something good. It’s hard to do everything right, but it’s worth it.”
Dietary choices aren’t the only ones contestants are faced with. Cowboys get accustomed to riding through pain, but they must determine whether they are hurt and can keep competing, or whether they are injured and need time off. It’s a fine line, bareback rider Orin Larsen said.
“It’s hard to beat the very best guys in the world when you’re healthy, but it’s 20 times harder to do it when you’re injured,” the Inglis, Manitoba, Canada cowboy said. “You can muscle it out and still perform well when you’re hurt. When the injury starts impacting how you ride, you’re injured.
“When you’re spending a lot of time and money to get on good horses and still not earning anything, that’s when it’s time to go home for a week or two and heal up a little bit.”
Justin Sports Medicine is represented at nearly every big rodeo on the PRCA circuit. The doctors in those trailers help diagnose and care for injuries. The contestants don’t pay for the treatment they receive from Justin Sports Medicine, making the group truly invaluable.
However, there are often injuries that require more care than the Justin Sports Medicine team can provide. Rodeo athletes operate as independent contractors and must procure their own health insurance. The Cowboy Crisis Fund also helps in times of need.
“I shattered the left side of my face last year and had to have my sinus cavity repaired,” Mortensen said. “I only paid $1,000 out of pocket, and they covered everything else and helped me get back on my feet.”