The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

February 4, 2012

Out of the chute: Bullriders of America finals come to Ottumwa

OTTUMWA — Combine 620 tons of dirt, 60 bulls, 25 bullriders and a venue big enough to hold it all, and the finished product is the 2011 Bullriders of America Finals at Bridge View Center.

Over two nights, the best riders in the association face off against hand-selected, well-known bulls. This is the culmination of the 2011 riding season for the BOA, a Midwest-based association, and the finalists are competing for more than $20,000 in cash and prizes this weekend.

Shawn “Boom Boom” Thompson was chosen to be this year’s barrel man, often referred to as the rodeo clown. Each night of the event is completely different, he says, and the level of competition is top-notch.

“Bullriders of America is the best amateur bullriding association,” Thompson said. “These are the same guys you’ll see at professional competitions, this is a big show just like you’ll see on TV and these are the best bulls in the world.”

The barrel man and the announcer for the finals are chosen by the BOA board. The judges and the bullfighters are voted on by the riders themselves. With a membership of over 100, the people awarding points and looking out for rider safety are chosen with care.

“It’s the excitement, the emotion, the danger, cool music and the atmosphere,” finals announcer Kelly Kenney said. “Wrap that all together with a family-oriented event and a cowboy theme, and you’ve got good, quality entertainment.”

Riders faced their first two bulls last night and will see two more tonight. This is Kenney’s 16th year as a bullriding announcer, and he says the excitement of each new night never goes away.

“Every night is different; the ride is different every time,” he said. “You can’t make the animal do something and you don’t know what he’s going to do. This is live and unrehearsed with an 1,800-pound anchor.”

But just as this is an important night of competition, the relationships between riders becomes even tighter. Levi Stepp, a bullrider from Pierce, Neb., says the camaraderie is essential.

“These are the guys you’ve ridden with week after week,” said Stepp, who is considered one of the old-timers at 25 years old. “They’re the ones you ride with, talk with and share life issues with. Someone else having a down night doesn’t raise the level of competition. If people around you are doing well, you’ll do well.”

One of this year’s riders, Davey Dyke, a Wrangler NFR qualifier to Las Vegas in 2005, is from Fremont. Having the finals this close to home has more than one benefit.

“I can stay at the house and take 10 minutes to get to the competition and family and friends get to go,” he said. “It’s going to be an action-packed night. There are some pretty handy riders and they’re here for the competition of it. It’s a big enough rush for us, but it’s just as big for the fans who are cheering us on.”

Shad Smith is stock contractor for 22 of the 60 bulls involved in this weekend’s event. The bulls for the finals are hand-selected and come from four different stock contractors. On the day of competition, they are given their breakfast, 12 pounds of grain and then get the day off until the middle of the afternoon. But they’re just as professional as the riders they’ll face tonight.

“They’re bred to do this, and they know why they’re here,” Smith said.

Fans will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the bulls before the competition, but it’s not a meet-and-greet like with the cowboys. The bulls will have one thing on their minds tonight — bucking.

“They feel you,” Stepp said. “They get smart. You’re like a fly on their back and they know how to scratch that itch. They do their job, so you have to go do yours.”

This BOA event is the first of its kind for Bridge View. When Larry Gawronski began as director of the center in January, the BOA finals were already on the schedule. But having no experience with dirt, bulls or riders, he called in experts from the VenuWorks network to provide some much-needed knowledge.

“We formed a committee that became our nucleus, and then we divided and conquered,” Gawronski said. “We did research at the World’s Toughest Rodeo in Des Moines, found sponsors and all the little things that would bring it all together.”

One of those committee members was Julie Zorn, who is also a Bridge View employee. The community involvement for the event was incredibly important during the planning process.

“BOA is definitely a big draw,” she said. “This will appeal to different people who have not even been in the center before.”

Scott Smith, who works for VenuWorks in Brookings, S.D., was asked to take care of one of the most important elements of the event — the dirt.

“There are so many different events, equestrian, rodeo, bullriding, and each one requires different ground. It’s a lot of trial and error,” he said. “Southern Iowa has too much clay, but I had an idea of what to do.”

Smith also has a bullriding background and has been able to combine the two to help Bridge View been ready for this weekend’s finals.

“It’s been great to share some knowledge,” he said. “Now, I’d need help to do a banquet for 1,000 because I’m the dirt guy. But we’ve got a network of people who are ready and able to help.”

BOA Secretary Hallie Dessel believes that Bridge View has been the perfect location for this season-ending event. Riders will leave the ring after tonight’s riding, enjoy a banquet in the lobby area and then head into the theater for the awards ceremony.

“We can really make a production of it, walk across the stage and not just give awards by the bucking shoots,” she said.

Bullriders of America has scheduled the finals here in Ottumwa for five years. For both BOA and Bridge View Center, the partnership has been a wonderful one.

“We’ve got a true asset when we look at Bridge View Center,” BOA president Brian Collett said. “And we can’t thank the volunteers enough for all the work they’ve done.”

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