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Back-to-back-to-back? 2-time defending world champion bareback rider Tim O’Connell keeps rolling

World's Oldest Rodeo

PHOTO: Tim O’Connell scores 80 on Jungle Cat in the bareback during the second performance of the World’s Oldest Rodeo on Friday, June 29, 2018, at Prescott Frontier Days in Prescott. The Zwingle, Iowa, native is two-time defending world champion bareback rider. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

PHOTO: Tim O’Connell scores 80 on Jungle Cat in the bareback during the second performance of the World’s Oldest Rodeo on Friday, June 29, 2018, at Prescott Frontier Days in Prescott. The Zwingle, Iowa, native is two-time defending world champion bareback rider. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

PRESCOTT — Two-time defending world champion bareback rider Tim O’Connell of Zwingle, Iowa, respects his competitors so much that they have kept him from getting cocky in the rodeo arena.

Heading into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s (PRCA) 2017 National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas last December, for example, O’Connell owned an $80,000 lead in the world standings.

But he refused to rest on his laurels. O’Connell won his second straight NFR average title by posting 853.5 points on 10 head of horses for $67,269 in earnings.

“To do it back-to-back, to have both these buckles sitting in my hands again going back to Iowa, what a blessing,” O’Connell told prorodeo.com right after the 2017 NFR. “It was harder this year – way harder this year than it was last year. The group of guys that are here are better than any of the guys that have set foot in this arena. This is the best set of 15 bareback riders that ever hit this arena.”

During his 10 days at the 2017 NFR, O’Connell won Round 3 and placed in six others, garnering checks in seven of the tournament’s 10 rounds. O’Connell ultimately nabbed $169,500 at the NFR alone, upping his final earnings for the 2017 season to $371,416.

“I had a really hot summer and a really strong winter,” O’Connell said June 29 from the Prescott Rodeo Grounds about his 2017 campaign. “Then I was ready to roll at the NFR.”

At the Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo on June 29, O’Connell notched an 81-point ride on a horse named Jungle Cat. By the time Monday rolled around, O’Connell had dropped out of the Top 8 here. However, the 26-year-old, who has qualified for the NFR in each of the past four years after joining the PRCA in 2013, hasn’t let the disappointments bother him.

“I trust my trainers, I trust my wife [Sami], and everyone that I talk to as far as getting my head right, getting my spiritual life right and getting my body right,” said O’Connell, who won a Frontier Days buckle in 2016 and placed second here last year. “When you trust the process and you believe in your process, you take luck right out of the equation.”

MENTAL GAME

Through Monday, O’Connell was ranked No. 2 in the world rankings for bareback riders, trailing only Caleb Bennett of Tremonton, Utah. Bennett, 29, leads O’Connell by about $13,000, compiling a total of some $93,350 to O’Connell’s $80,300.

“The thing that separates Tim from a lot of competitors is just his mental game,” said Logan Corbett, one of O’Connell’s traveling partners this summer. “Finishing anything less than first is not an option. When he comes here [to Prescott], he comes to win. He didn’t come to place. He’s very intense, which is huge. And a lot of that’s rubbed off on me.”

During Cowboy Christmas, the action-packed summer rodeo docket, O’Connell has a chance to catch up to Bennett in short order as long as he stays consistent.

“It’s a little slower than what I expected [this season], but my last month has been just killer – it’s been as good as I could possibly imagine my last month going,” O’Connell said. “So, it’s really put me on track and got my confidence way high, got me feeling good about my riding. Everything else takes care of itself in the summer.”

The 5-foot-7, 145-pound O’Connell has already won buckles at 10 different rodeos and was co-champion at three others this year. Meanwhile, Bennett, who has made six consecutive NFR appearances (2012-17), has won buckles at 10 different rodeos and was a co-champion at two others. O’Connell seems to welcome the stiff competition.

“There’s a new group of guys mixed with these older guys, mixed with our generation, that is just dirty when it comes to riding bareback horses,” O’Connell said. “Guys ride better, guys train harder, guys want it more. So, when you combine all three of them things, you have high level of competition every time you have to nod your head. It forces you to step your game up.”

Shane O’Connell of Rapid City, South Dakota, another of Tim’s traveling partners who isn’t related to him despite sharing the same last name, presently sits in an impressive eighth in the world standings. Corbett, rodeo coach at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is currently 20th in the world.

Shane said Tim has a strategy of traveling to the rodeos with the best-trained horses, which can generate solid paydays if you ride well enough for the required 8 seconds to score. Through Monday, Logan and Shane remained in the Top 5 of the standings at Frontier Days after posting 88- and 86-point rides, respectively, on June 29.

“The summer’s kinda when we get hot,” Shane said. “We kind of feed off each other. It’s just a positive energy. Those guys have got good heads on their shoulders and kind of keep me in line a little bit.”

Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.