Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock—or maybe too focused on the PBR—you’ve heard about the winningest rookie ever to come down the pike: Sage Steele Kimzey. (If you haven’t, you’ll see him compete in The American rodeo on RFD-TV tomorrow night, with the PBR’s Top 10 Riders and a handful of the Touring Pro’s best.)
He’s the 2014 PRCA and CBR World Champion, PRCA Rookie of the Year, and winner of the RAM Top Gun Award. And get this: he was competing during the daytime in the Frontier Days rodeo, and at night in the CBR Finals.
As for the numbers, he’s astounding:
• 4 of his CBR Finals rides were scored 90, 90, 90.50, and 91.
• He rode 8 of his 10 bulls during the PRCA/NFR Finals.
• He’s only the 2nd rookie to win the PRCA title; the last one was in 1963.
• He broke the PRCA record for rookie earnings by more than $100,000.
• He broke the record for most money won in a season, when he was a permit holder.
• His 2014 riding percentage was 63.77%.
And he’s only 20 years old.
According to CBR founder Tuff Hedeman, Sage is “a rare talent who rides fundamentally flawless.” (The English major in me wants you to know that the correct word here would be “flawlessly.”) Kimzey’s technique is smooth, calm, and so sticky, you’d think he’s got rosin on his butt.
That made Sage laugh when I told him my first impression of seeing him ride. I asked how he keeps so focused and calm on a bull; I don’t see any panic moves.
“No, there’s not,” he says, just as calmly. “I would guess it’s just because I’ve been around rodeos so long; it’s a place I’m very comfortable. I’ve been around bulls all my life… I’ve had some situations that were at the time as big as the NFR to me, but I was comfortable on the back of the bull. I guess it’s just a personality thing; I don’t really get too wound up about anything.”
I mentioned how smooth his countermoves are; he’s in control and in tune with the bull. There’s even a touch of J.B. Mauney’s free arm glide. “Well, thank you,” Sage says. “That’s from a lot of practice, a lot of trial and error.”
As far as he remembers, Sage probably got on his first animal at age 3. Does he remember when he first made 8 seconds? “Shoot; no. When I was four years old, probably.” What was the first event he won? “Shoot; I couldn’t tell you.” I’m thinking, If he keeps riding like he’s been doing, eventually he might not even remember the first World Championship he won.
“I’ve had a few hiccups here and there in my training, but I’ve been working at it since I was three years old, to where I got everything down right. There wasn’t anything that I really just had to focus on, like that was the only thing wrong with my ride. I just had to work out the kinks, and everything went good.” I’d say that’s a holistic approach to bullriding: not obsessing about where his feet are, or in which direction the bull spins.
Sage spent time training with Gary Leffew and his own father Ted, a former rider and experienced bullfighter. (I hate to call them “clowns;” there’s nothing funny about what they do.) I asked if they gave him any secrets to help his riding. “Not any specific secrets, I’d say; they’re not anything like that. Dad always tells me to stay square and in the box, which just means stay square with the bull, and don’t throw your free arm or move out of position, just stay in position and make the bull buck you off. A bunch of guys buck themselves off, with the wrong countermoves. I try to stay away from that, and it works out pretty good, usually.”
Kimzey’s Hit Parade
In terms of role models, Sage has plenty of the best: “I’m a huge fan of rodeo and the history of the sport, so I’d say, Donnie Gay, definitely; I loved Jim Sharp’s style; [Ring of Honor member] Clint Branger, Cody Custer, Tuff Hedeman—all of them; I can’t just name a couple of them. I appreciate everybody for their style and the way they do things. I’ve looked up to pretty much every good bull rider that’s ever come down the pike. I’ve watched films on everybody, even up to now.”
I asked him about riders competing now. “I’ve idolized J.W. [Harris] for six or seven years. J.B.’s [Mauney] phenomenal, just from the fact that some of the moves he makes, guys should just not be able to make. He makes stuff happen that shouldn’t work at all, but in the end it does come out. Silvano’s an absolute beast—I’m a huge Silvano Alves fan.” I cheer a little at the fact that an American rider doesn’t have a problem with a Brazilian rider. He laughs.
Kimzey on Re-Rides
I asked his take on the flak Alves gets for turning down re-rides. His answer is so mature, it’s hard to believe that two years ago, he was in high school: “There’s definitely a time and a place to take one, but there’s a time and a place not to; it doesn’t make you any less of a cowboy if you don’t take one. It’s all about your decision at the time and without any time to think about it.”
Did you hear that, all you folks who dislike Silvano because he doesn’t like to take re-rides? It doesn’t make you any less of a cowboy if you don’t take one. And I think this cowboy ought to know.
“Hindsight’s definitely 20/20. You have an instant to think about it and make a decision on the spot; you just gotta go with it and not have any regrets. There’s never been a time that I haven’t taken a re-ride that I regretted it, or when I did take a re-ride and got bucked off and regretted it. It’s just the kind of decision you just gotta learn to live with.” I recall Silvano saying something similar about having to make a decision on the spot, and trying to think about how it will affect him later. Apparently great bullriding minds think alike.
It might seem silly to ask someone just past the rookie stage which bulls and rides stand out for him, for better or for worse, but I did. Yep, one did stick out for him, with good reason. “When I was 18, I got on Magic Train, D&H Cattle owned him at the time, and I was 93 points on him; that was the first time I’d ever been 90. To be 93, being an 18-year-old kid—that’s definitely a ride that’ll stick out in my mind. For the worst rides that stick out in my mind…” He starts laughing, and I never get an answer.
As to whether there’s a specific bull he wants to try: “I like to get on anything that bucks, really. I’m not too picky. Anything that’s going to push me over the 90 mark—shoot, I’m happy with that.” No mention of what type of action he’d prefer, or whether the bull spins left or right—I think he’s got his head on straight.
He also has a “one that got away” story: 3rd ranked Crystal Deal (88.46% buckoff rate, according to ProBullStats), belonging to Don Kish. “I had him at the Redding [CA] Champions Challenge last year, and he actually got crippled in the bucking chute…much to my dismay. So Kish pulled him. I didn’t want that to happen to him; I really wanted to get on him. I was really looking forward to getting on him.” The result of the incident: no score for Kimzey, and a re-ride that didn’t pan out. “I’ll tell you, there’s one that I have a little personal vendetta against that I need to get back at him for.”
I asked him about buying any bulls. “Not bulls; I own just about 30 head of heifers this year. I probably won’t ever own one; honestly, they’re a lot of hassle. That’s one thing, the stock contractors never get enough praise for dealing with the animals and all that. It’s very definitely a task that takes a lot of time and a lot of effort… The connection between a stock contractor and one of his animal athletes is—you can just see the love and affection that Julio [Moreno] has for Bushwacker. It’s just like anybody raising a child, really. You see them from conception, birth, where they’re just starting out growing up. And the stock contractors love them as much, too.” I said it’s sad when they retire.
He agrees. “It’s the same thing as a kid moving out to college or anything like that. It’s the whole thought that—like I said, they’re with them from Day One til the day they retire, and usually til they pass away, too, so it’s a whole process. It’s special to see the connection like Julio has with Bushwacker, or any of the other contractors with their top athletes. You can tell the love that goes back and forth.”
Back to his phenomenal results in Cheyenne: I recognize when someone’s in “the Zone.” It doesn’t happen just with athletes. I’ve seen it in great musicians (Jimi Hendrix, amen!) when they take off into an entirely inspired realm and can do no wrong; and I know I’m not the only actress on the planet who’s experienced the amazing feeling of being the character and watching from outside at the same time, never putting a foot wrong, and taking the audience along for the ride. Sage sure took people along for the ride last year. Other rookies might choke—even seasoned pros do—in a run for any World Championship. Instead, Sage was king of the Zone. I asked how he kept his concentration.
“It seems any time I go to a big event and the pressure’s high, the stakes are high, that’s when I really get into the zone. In the big moments where there’s a lot of money up, and a lot of pressure, the title, the prestige behind the event… that’s when I really step up my game. It seems to bring the best out in me.” No kidding!
He explains, “I handle it a lot different than most guys do. It really calms me down, being in a big moment like that. I’m revved up, and I’m kind of nervous in a way, but it’s more anxiety than it is being nervous or scared of the big moments at all. That’s just what I’ve been gunning for, the big moments. It slows down everything for me and it makes the ride really easy, honestly. I don’t know why it is that way for me, but everything’s just slow and everything seems to work really good whenever the stakes are high and the moments are big.” Most people get that slowed-down experience during a car wreck, but hey, this is a bull rider talking.
Does he have any kind of pre-ride ritual for luck? “I pray right before I get on, but other than that, I’m not really a superstitious guy at all,” he says, which isn’t what another writer reported. That guy mentioned a lucky hat, lucky boots, and not changing socks all during the Finals. I don’t ask. I just mention what I’ve seen Guilherme Marchi, Ryan McConnel, and Ben Jones do in the chute: does he ever slap his own face? He gives what may be the funniest answer possible coming from a bull rider: “Not me. I don’t want to inflict any pain on myself.”
How-To for the Newbies
What would he tell a young bull rider coming up? “Practice makes perfect. That’s what it comes down to, how bad do you want it, and how bad do you want to work for it. You hear it all the time, but that’s really what it comes down to: how many hours of sleep are you willing to lose. I get on practice bulls probably three days a week when I’ve gone home… spend hours on ‘em. Call it my art, that’s what brought me early success in my career. It’s all about how hard you wanna work.”
I commented on guys who go out partying the night before an event (not mentioning any names); those are the ones I see being airmailed all over the arena. His response is amazingly mature: “You can tell pretty quick who wants to be successful and who doesn’t. There’s a fine line between having fun and being a little excessive with it. I’ll go out and have a good time, but when it comes down to business, I make sure that I take care of it.”
Sage says he doesn’t have a motto. “Not really. I just live with no regrets; just take every day, day by day.”
Kimzey spends virtually 24/7 on the road with traveling partners Tanner Bothwell and Brennon Eldred; as we spoke, he and Eldred were sitting in an airport waiting to fly out to Denver for the Colorado vs. the World Invitational. “Then I need to take a little ski trip, then head over to Vegas,” he says. “We’re not going to do the Cowboy Downhill; we’re actually up in a rodeo that same day. Maybe next year.”
What does he do when gets home? “Just hang out with friends and family, and bull riders I know. I just like to hang out and live a normal life.” Again: sensible.
Taking Care of Business
Kimzey may seem like Superman, but there’s only so much a guy can do with 24 hours in the day. He completed two years toward his business degree at Southwestern Oklahoma State University (during which his high school declared a Sage Kimzey Day), but had to leave school: final exams took place during the PRCA Finals, and the CBR schedule conflicted with the college rodeo schedule.
Business degree? Yep—he knows bullriding isn’t just a sport, it’s a way to build a foundation for your future. “Since I don’t have very long to ride bulls—I figured a long career would be about 10, 15 years—I figured I’d go ahead and get it while the gettin’s good, and if I feel like it after I retire, I can always go back to school.” Kinda sensible for a guy who took the top prizes on two of the biggest circuits in the most dangerous sport on earth.
Seriously sensible: with his $100,000 in CBR bonus money, Sage bought a 25-foot motor home for himself and his traveling partners, and “a bunch of cows and stuff like that, so after I’ve finished riding I’ll have something to fall back on.” I ask if he’s tried out the fancy one-of-a-kind Juan Munoz Andrade trophy saddle he also won. He laughs. “No, I haven’t. It probably won’t ever hit a horse’s back. It’ll be one that I just keep inside. It’s something that every bull rider in the PRCA thinks about attaining. It was definitely fun.”
Sage says he might visit the bullriding scene south of the equator. Fellow riders who attended the huge event in Barretos, Brazil absolutely loved it, he said. “I’d like to go down there just to see the difference in culture; not so much the difference in competition. That’s something I want to do, tour the world. My Dad had a chance to go whenever the bullfights were really big. He had a chance to tour Germany, just tour different cultures of the world, and see how the world’s different in so many other places. I think that’d be cool.” Sage definitely could give “cool” lessons to the xenophobics here. (Look it up, folks; it’s a fancy word for being scared of cooties.)
After he’s done being a star (he didn’t say that; I did), Sage intends to go back to the family ranch in the teeny weeny town of Strong, Oklahoma (there’s debate about whether the population is 30 or 49) and run it with his siblings. “For sure, ranching is a lot of work,” he says, “but there’s a lot of rewards, too; shoot. I love the Western way of life and the Western heritage. Being an American cowboy is near and dear to my heart, and that’s what I want to do: just be a cowboy, day in and day out.”
P.S. Sage Steele Kimzey is one of the few bullriders who doesn’t cite Lonesome Dove as his favorite movie. His is The Shawshank Redemption. An intelligent movie for an intelligent cowboy.
P.S.#2. But we both love Family Guy.