Knowing when to retire from professional sports competition is never easy. It's often a case of 'the mind is willing, but the body is weak'. Just when you can benefit from years of experience, and handling pressure filled situations, the effects of years of training and pounding and extra stress begin to kick in.
That's the dilemma two of Canada's top pro cowboys faced last fall. Tie-down roper Cliff Williamson and bareback rider Travis Whiteside both made a decision to call it quits in their long and successful careers.
Williamson is a future Hall of Famer. He's been to Canada's year-end championships in Edmonton a record 28 times, and he's ridden away with the buckle that says Canadian Champion five times. He began his pro rodeo career nearly three decades ago, by claiming Rookie of the Year honors in 1980.
But as with so many rodeo cowboys, the rigors of the road have taken their toll. The travel got old, and at the age of 47, Williamson was finding it hard to leap out of bed in the mornings. So last November's Canadian Finals Rodeo was to be his last.
But wouldn't you know it - he finished with a flourish and wound up in fifth spot. A nice way to cap a wonderful career.
But, the top five season finishers in each event get an automatic invitation to the Calgary Stampede.That meant the door was open for Williamson to run at a hundred thousand dollars at one of his favorite places.
A true competitor like Cliff doesn't like to pass up chances like that. So much for retirement plans.
The cowboy who lives near a little place called Madden, just north of Calgary, put his rope away for a few months, went south for the winter, and resurfaced on the rodeo scene a few weeks ago, just to get tuned up.
Knocking off the cobwebs
He won some money at Stampedes in Ponoka and Williams Lake last weekend. I caught up with him after a smooth 8.4 second run at Ponoka, to see how his coming-out-of-retirement process was going.
"It's coming," Williamson told me. "I've been practicing a little bit at home. I've got a wooden calf I tie, and I've been roping a bale, and it's getting better all the time. In about another eight days, we'll have all the cobwebs knocked off."
"As long as I believe in my mind I can do it, that's part of the deal. You've got to back in there, believing you can win something."
"I'll be ready."
Well, ready he was, and it's showing already after two performances here of the big one, the Stampede that was enough to bring the looper back into action.
On opening day he got his job done in 8.5 seconds, and was just two ticks out of a paycheque. In the second performance, he wrapped things up in 7.7 seconds, which was fast enough for second place, and $4000.
Just imagine what you could, or couldn't do in 7.7 seconds! Cliff went from a standing position on his horse, nodded his head, dashed after a calf, threw two loops of his lariat, caught the calf, ran down the rope, laid the calf down, gathered three legs, removed what's called the 'pigging string' from his mouth, wrapped it around the calf's leg in a half hitch tie, and threw his hands in the air.
You can't even describe all that in 7.7 seconds! Not bad for a guy who's wife is probably already thinking about planning his 50th birthday party.
"I'm probably the only guy who has to put his bifocals on to read the breakfast menu in this crew," chuckled Williamson, moments after his successful run. "But it's fun to win something."
Roping against wolves
Williamson is roping against some of the 'wolves' in his game, guys like the famous Fred Whitfield, who's won seven world titles, and Cody Ohl, who's picked up five world championships of his own.
"I've roped against those guys for twenty years, so it's not like I look at them and they scare me or anything. The game doesn't change much from one year to the next, or one day to the next."
The cool thing about his run this day is that he went back to his faithful horse, Salty. Like Williamson, he's aged well, and at 24 (which is definitely senior citizen status in the horse world!) he's still got enough spring in his step to get his owner to the bank in the roping arena.
Now Williamson has got a taste of Calgary winning again, he's looking ahead.
"I feel if I can do 'er one more time, we'll be here Sunday. And then we've just got to win fourth the first time, and tie a real fast one there late Sunday, and hope the nerves get some of the boys!"
Ups and downs
That's the confidence of a winner. Over the years, Williamson has had his share of ups and downs at the Calgary Stampede. So often he made it to the final stages of the rodeo, only to wind up empty.
Being his hometown show, it was something he wanted to win badly. In 1999, it finally happened. Wouldn't it be something for Williamson to really end his roping career with a walk up on that stage in front of a packed Calgary Stampede grandstand Sunday afternoon for a big $100,000 cheque?
As I mentioned, Travis Whiteside found himself in a similar boat as Williamson, and he, too, has been out on the road the last few weeks, warming up his bareback rigging. That's the suitcase-like handle he's strapped on many a horse over his sixteen year pro career. And just last Tuesday, he rode the world's rankest bucking horse, Calgary Stampede's renowned Grated Coconut, to win the Ponoka Stampede.
But that horse is so strong, he takes his toll. After Whiteside's first ride at Calgary, when he returned to the dressing room with a sore neck, they packed him off to the hospital for some x-rays.
Some old injuries were acting up, and I saw the Sports Medicine Team working on him again after his second ride. His body is definitely objecting to the abuse of what's likely the toughest physical event in rodeo.
But like Williamson, Whiteside went to the pay window in round two, finishing the day in a tie for third place. He, too, could be back on Sunday.
And here's a brand new development: when veteran saddle bronc rider Billy Etbauer hurt his back just last weekend, he had to withdraw from his place on the Stampede roster.
The Stampede committee issued a special invitation to a former champion, and six-time world buckle winner, Dan Mortensen. He also had retired this year, but is dusting off his saddle for a chance to ride at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth one more time. T
here's just something about the Calgary Stampede that makes oldtimers feel like kids again!
Behind the chutes: Josh Peek is one of the hottest cowboys on a horse these days. Performance-wise, I mean (although any girls wanting to draw their own conclusions can check out his website www.peekrodeo.com). The Colorado cowboy is way out in front of the world tie-down roping standings.He's won plenty in steer wrestling too, including first in that event here at the Stampede in round one. But he's sporting a multi-colored shiner, and three stitches above his eye. No, it wasn't the result of a late night brawl, but rather an ornery steer that threw his head into Peek's face at a rodeo in St. Paul two days ago. In fact, when he won at the Stampede Friday, his eye was basically swollen shut. At least he can see a little bit now.
And could you imagine bouncing up and down in your saddle with a badly bruised tailbone? Bronc rider Jeff Willert is doing that, after a rodeo mishap in Cody, Wyoming a couple of days ago. He had a hard horse to ride this round, but still insists it's getting better. These guys are tough!
Dianne Finstad is an agricultural and rodeo broadcaster in Red Deer, Alberta. She grew up near the Montana border in southern Alberta where her family’s been ranching for a century. Her western background and 4-H experience led her to a broadcasting career, which has included more than 25 years of covering pro rodeo for television, print, radio and now through this blog, the internet!)