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Waitin’ on Sage

On the road and in the dirt with Sage Kimzey, the 20-year-old king of rodeo

The bull rider’s mother says a prayer. She shuts out the surrounding noise — the fireworks, Pitbull on the sound system, the announcer yelling,

It’s buuuuuuuuuuuullllll riding time!

Twenty-two rows below, Jennifer Kimzey’s eldest son, Sage Steele Kimzey, walks out of the tunnel at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. He wears purple-and-black chaps, a crisp Wrangler shirt, and his lucky hat and boots, worn through in the toe. His 135-pound frame looks impossibly small from here. She focuses on the words emblazoned on the silver bracelet on her wrist: let your faith be bigger than your fear.

<p>Sage Kimzey&rsquo;s mother, Jennifer, watches from the stands.</p>

Sage Kimzey’s mother, Jennifer, watches from the stands.

Behind her, a 9-year-old fan from Florida named Bryce solemnly holds up a kimzey poster. Bryce thinks that he might be a bull rider one day, and he keeps glancing at Jennifer. The proximity to his hero’s mom is intoxicating. Nearby are the doctor who delivered Sage 20 years ago and a tall rodeo queen clad in a leather dress cut to the thigh. Pouring a Monster energy drink over ice with long, delicate fingers, she says that she once danced with Sage at the Pendleton Round-Up, Oregon’s legendary rodeo. Jennifer’s ex-husband and Sage’s father, Ted, is down in the fifth row, right above the dirt, a place of honor he’s owned since his days as a professional rodeo clown.

All are here to see history. Tonight at the National Finals Rodeo (nfr), the Super Bowl for America’s original extreme sport, Sage can clinch the gold buckle in bull riding. Doing so would make him the youngest Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (prca) world champion in more than 50 years. Depending on how much money he takes home, he might also win a new Dodge Ram, which would be nice. To observers, the coronation seems a foregone conclusion. Over the past 12 months, Kimzey has set a rookie record by winning more than $130,000 on the prca circuit. His nearest competitor is tens of thousands of dollars behind him. So far at the finals, Kimzey has been similarly dominant, bucking off just once in seven bulls. He’s running away with this thing, as the announcer continually reminds the crowd of 19,000. But Jennifer knows there are no guarantees in this sport. Tonight Sage is on Guns & Donuts, a North Dakotan bull that usually goes right, but not always. The animal is roughly 11 times bigger than her son. She prays: “Lord, please grant whatever he is praying for right now.”

<p>J.W. Harris, before a ride that will knock him down hard</p>

J.W. Harris, before a ride that will knock him down hard

The first rider is the defending champion, a bearded Texan named J.W. Harris. At 28, Harris has screws and pins in his head as a result of his chosen profession. One year he estimated he’d had five or six concussions in a single season. But he hasn’t worn a helmet as of late; he’s back in the more traditional cowboy hat. He nods his head, the chute opens, and he raises his hand skyward. He’s on for the bull’s first few frenetic kicks, and then something goes wrong.

Harris tumbles to the dirt, but his right wrist doesn’t disentangle from the bull rope. He’s caught, dragging alongside the animal. The bull launches into the air, taking Harris’s body along with it. Three bullfighters, who have the unenviable job of intervening between angry animal and downed rider, attempt to unhook Harris’s hand. They can’t. Once, twice, and three times he rag-dolls, his head jerking forward and back as the bull bucks. A hard silence settles across the arena. Harris manages to free his hand, then falls back. He’s lying supine on the ground when the bull turns on him. The head comes first. This is the worst-looking part of a bull attack — the driving horns — but it’s not the most dangerous. That comes next, when the bull stomps on Harris. Over and over hooves pound his body and head. The rodeo queen says, “Oh, no, that’s bad. Oh, no.” Jennifer Kimzey lowers her face into her hands. The bullfighters throw themselves at the animal; it shakes its head and rushes out of the arena. Bryce, in his 9-year-old wisdom, says, “I’ve seen worse. Way worse.”

Somehow, Harris stands, blood on his face. The crowd roars as he limps off. In the locker room, trainers will examine his head to make sure no internal metal has been disturbed; someone else will propose a shot of whiskey. Out in the arena, the show goes on. Fireworks, heavy metal, eight-second rides.

<p>Ty Wallace, who broke his arm earlier in the week, getting ready to ride in round eight</p>

Ty Wallace, who broke his arm earlier in the week, getting ready to ride in round eight

A young Coloradan named Ty Wallace comes out of the chute, his right arm appearing stiff as it jerks through the air. It’s fractured, the work of a bull named Hang ’Em High that took him to the ground last night. Wallace stays on for eight seconds, scoring 85 out of 100 possible points. If the score holds up, he’ll win nearly $19,000. But in bull riding, the best rider goes last, and tonight, as it has for so many nights this year, that honor goes to the 20-year-old kid from Strong City, Oklahoma.

Kimzey straps on his black helmet, squats, then springs up and down, violently slapping his chaps and shoulders in a sort of ritual dance. He hops over the chutes and onto Guns & Donuts, then rubs his glove hand up and down on the rope to work in rosin and Neutrogena soap, a tacky mixture to improve his grip. Bryce screams. The rodeo queen claps. Jennifer’s right leg jackhammers up and down, and she fans her face with a sign bearing her son’s name. Sage nods his head, and the chute opens.

The best rodeo stories are tragedies. The cowboy of American legend is a sacrificial creature, destroying himself in pursuit of an old-fashioned brand of liberty, along with the occasional taste of glory. The fame is fleeting, the girl leaves, and the pain lingers. That’s what George Strait and Garth Brooks say, anyway.

The myth, of course, is overcooked. Plenty of rodeo cowboys go on to lead happy lives, and some even brush up against mainstream success. In 2009, Ty Murray, the nine-time Wrangler nfr champion from Arizona known as the King of the Cowboys, appeared on Dancing with the Stars.

But the danger in rodeo is real. Steer wrestlers (or “bulldoggers”) dislocate shoulders and ankles and shred knees, while many ropers are missing their thumbs, the result of getting the appendage caught in the rope. Nothing compares with bull riding, though. It’s the least practical event — no working cowboy ever has cause to hop on a bull. You need to ride the bull for eight full seconds without letting your free hand touch the animal or your body. Two judges then award 50 points each, up to 25 to the rider, for control and style, and 25 to the bull, for how hard he bucks. Bull riding closes every rodeo. The preceding events make a show of man’s dominion over nature. Then the crowd roars, the chute opens, and the cowboy’s comeuppance is served. It’s brief and usually violent. A University of Calgary researcher named Dale Butterwick found 27 fatalities among bull riders between 1989 and 2012. “It is the most dangerous eight seconds in the world,” Butterwick says. “Nothing comes close.”

Over the course of the past century, organized pro rodeo has produced exactly two competitors who have become household names in the parts of America where roping and riding aren’t common: Chris Ledoux, a bareback rider turned country-music star, and Lane Frost, a polite, clean-cut bull-riding world champion who was gored to death following an 85-point ride at the nation’s most storied rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days, in 1989. Frost won just one pro rodeo championship, but his martyrdom earned him a biopic titled Eight Seconds and eternal deification — imagine if a young Derek Jeter had died on the field following his first World Series win. Stick around the beer stand long enough at any big rodeo and you’ll probably see a waitin’ on lane T-shirt.

People who compete in rodeo often come from rodeo families. For the prca, recruiting outsiders can be a challenge. These days, there are far more remunerative options for athletic young men and women with a debatably healthy risk tolerance. While the prca draws five million live fans annually — by some estimates more than golf or tennis — its athletes rarely get rich. There’s no union, pension, or guaranteed salary. You typically pay to enter each rodeo and take home cash only when you place high enough. It’s kind of like gambling. Competitors often drive ten hours, ride, then hop back in the car. At the end of the year, the 15 highest-money winners in each event go to Vegas for the finals. These elite ropers and riders usually win about $100,000 in prize money per year, a fraction of the minimum salary for a bench warmer in the nfl. Pro rodeo supplies accident insurance, which covers up to $300,000 of medical expenses in the event of a catastrophic injury during competition, but riders have to pay for their own basic health plans. Kimzey has one, which his father pays for. (Ted, who is modest about his success as a cattle rancher, wouldn’t divulge how much it costs.) Many guys can’t afford it. The trail of bills stemming from one bad injury can easily put a cowboy in debt.

The best bull riders often head for greener pastures. In 1992, a bunch of riders including Murray and another world champion, Tuff Hedeman, Lane Frost’s best friend, rebelled against the prca in hopes of earning more money. They started a rival group called the Professional Bull Riders (pbr), which offered unadulterated bull-riding carnage without any of the rodeo pageantry. Now many great bull riders go to the pbr, which offers ranker, or meaner, bulls, bigger payouts, and a more forgiving schedule.

Rodeo’s biggest name these days is a 38-year-old Texan roper named Trevor Brazile. Square-jawed and polite, Brazile is admirably consistent. Think Peyton Manning. But the sport could use a jolt — a transcendent young star. A living Lane Frost.

<p>Charlie Daniels performs at the National Finals Rodeo.</p>

Charlie Daniels performs at the National Finals Rodeo.

<p>Bryce is a 9-year-old rodeo fan from Florida.</p>

Bryce is a 9-year-old rodeo fan from Florida.

<p>Sage dances at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo.</p>

Sage dances at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo.

<p>Sage receives an award.</p>

Sage receives an award.

Jennifer and Ted Kimzey met at a competition in Lubbock, Texas. She was the queen and he was the clown. Sage attended his first National Finals Rodeo at 4 months old. In the winters the couple helped Ted’s father, Steele, run his cattle ranch in Oklahoma, which Kimzey ancestors first homesteaded in the land run of the 1860s. Summers were spent on the road. Sage hopped on his first sheep at age 4 and his first calf at 6. Jennifer recalls trying to find a mean animal in order to dissuade him, a strategy that failed. Ted, who had been a close friend of Frost’s, insisted on helmets and protective vests, which were introduced following Frost’s death.

Bull riding looks like the simplest sport. You grab a rope wrapped around a bull and hold on. There’s more to it, though. Good riders continually adjust their hips to keep their center of gravity square over the bull’s shoulders. “What it is is a feel,” says Ted. “You can’t really try to predict them big pricks. If you do, they’ll have a tendency to fake you out.” Ted taught Sage to imagine a glass box surrounding him. “Square and in the box,” he’d say. Sage attended bull-riding camps, and his quickness allowed him to correct errors that left larger riders in the dirt. He twice won the Oklahoma high school bull-riding championship, then enrolled at Southwestern Oklahoma State, Ted’s alma mater, on a rodeo scholarship.

To enter the prca, young contestants pay $300 for a permit and then must win at least $1,000 to earn their rookie card, which costs $500. Kimzey bought his permit on his 18th birthday, in August 2012. (Undergrad riders are allowed to compete professionally, unlike other college athletes.) By September 2013 he’d set a record for rookie earnings with $47,726. The following January, he packed up his Dodge Charger with boots, spurs, and chaps. He wrote the words 2014 nfr world champion on a strip of athletic tape, signed it, stuck it to his rearview mirror, and started to drive.

He won at San Antonio, El Paso, and Tulsa. He went two weeks without getting bucked off, during which time he refused to wash his socks. The pbr called, and Kimzey declined. He liked both the tradition of rodeo and the road. In Rapid City, a couple told Kimzey they were planning to name their unborn child Sage. In Amarillo, he and a buddy ended up in a car driving 100 miles per hour with two guys who offered them drugs. They declined. Some nights, driving in the Charger, he’d call Jennifer at 2 a.m. to talk and stay awake.

By summer — peak rodeo season — he had earned six figures and was fighting with Harris for the top spot in the Windham Weaponry bull-riding standings. He took the lead in June, then struggled over the Fourth of July. By the time Cheyenne Frontier Days rolled around later that month, he had only a slight lead.

Known as “the Daddy of ’Em All,” Frontier Days is the country’s largest outdoor rodeo. Some 200,000 people attend the two-week event, which is set in a park on the outskirts of Wyoming’s capital. I arrived on a Monday. Outside the rodeo grounds sat the Indian Village, where Arapaho men and women performed traditional dances. A series of wooden storefronts and chuck wagons made up the Old Frontier Town, where visitors could order brisket or adopt a wild horse. Inside the arena, everything smelled of hay, dirt, kettle corn, and Coors. The crowds were a mix, skinny jeans and aviators interspersed among the Wranglers, cowboy hats, and waitin’ on lane T-shirts.

I met Kimzey at a wooden fence next to trays of barbecue, a few hundred yards from the spot where Frost was killed 25 years ago. He struck me as smaller than his listed height of five seven. His face was slightly asymmetrical and marked with some acne, and he had a bowlegged walk. He was polite and terse in the cowboy manner: Yes sir, no sir, just taking it eight seconds at a time. His was one of the lightest handshakes I’ve ever felt, a surprise given the grip he has to put on a bull rope.

Kimzey was competing both in the rodeo and the Championship Bull Riding (cbr) series. Within the somewhat convoluted web of organizations that make up professional rodeo, cbr plays little brother to pbr. The series ends at Cheyenne, and coming into the event Kimzey was in the lead; if he rode well, he’d win a $100,000 bonus check. His competition was stiff, including Harris and a stocky rider named Trey Benton III, or TB3, who was also close behind Kimzey in the leader-board standings. Harris rode one bull beautifully, but on his next ride was thrown high in the air. The crowd roared, and the announcer cracked, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not Superman, that’s J.W. Harris!”

<p>Trey Benton III (&ldquo;TB3&rdquo;) ices up after round seven of the National Finals Rodeo.</p>

Trey Benton III (“TB3”) ices up after round seven of the National Finals Rodeo.

Kimzey was antic before his first ride, hopping around and whacking his chaps. Then he mounted, the chute opened, and everything seemed to quiet down. His torso never jerked. His left arm stayed up and still. After eight seconds the whistle blew and he hopped off easily, as though dismounting a slowing bicycle. After each ride he threw his hands in the air, sure of the result even before the judges awarded him near-perfect scores.

Kimzey’s reward for winning the event was the chance to mount a bull named Penny Lover that had bucked off every previous rider. If he stayed on Penny Lover for eight seconds, he’d win a tractor. Penny Lover had other ideas, bucking him off after 7.46 seconds. Kimzey left with no tractor, but $100,000 more in his bank account and a trophy presented by Lane Frost’s parents.

Later, I called up Hedeman, Frost’s best friend. What gave Kimzey such control? “He’s just very fundamentally sound,” Hedeman said. “The most important thing is he stays close to his rope” — meaning that he holds his arm tight to his body and his rope right underneath his crotch. “Ninety percent of the time guys get bucked off because they’re getting leaned back and stretched out. It’s not about strength. If you’re in the right position, it does not matter if the bull goes right or left. If they turn one direction, you react and turn with ’em. He does that better than anybody I’ve seen in a very long time. He makes bull riding look boring.” He compared Kimzey to Jim Sharp, a two-time gold-buckle winner who had an incredible ease on the bull. “Sometimes,” Hedeman said, “someone comes along who’s better than everyone else. That’s just the way it is.”

Sage rides Foolish Man in round nine at the National Finals Rodeo.

Oklahoma’s panhandle is hard and flat, dotted with high school championship signs, drill rigs, and pump jacks. The boom associated with hydraulic fracturing is ramping up here. Strong City, though, is an oasis. It’s set in an oxbow of the Washita River, and tall grasses wave among small rolling hills. The U.S. Census reports its population at 47, but Sage says the real figure is closer to 30.

In the fall he returned to work the ranch and think. With the rodeo regular season wrapping up, he had to decide whether or not he’d return to college. He liked school, where he studied business, but it’s hard to write papers while rodeoing. He dropped out with his parents’ support. “Sage was more upset than we were,” says Jennifer, who has lived near Strong City since she and Ted divorced, when Sage was 18. “Realistically, he’ll work on that ranch.”

In October Kimzey spent $86,000 of his winnings on cattle, tweeting out to his followers, “Bought 22 head of commercial heifers today! #blessed #lifeafterbulls.” He knows that the business is changing fast — prices are up, drought is insistent, more oil wells are coming, and huge ranches dominate the market — but he considers himself fortunate. Many rodeo riders have no plans for their second lives, when medical bills for bad backs or creaky knees mount. There are so many ways to end up in the red. Recently, a steer wrestler trying to pay off medical bills was convicted for his role in a rhino-horn smuggling ring. Other riders have ended up with addiction problems.

<p>A nearby high school throws a party in Sage&rsquo;s honor.</p>

A nearby high school throws a party in Sage’s honor.

In mid-October Kimzey went to a small rodeo in Duncan, Oklahoma, the birthplace of Halliburton. Though Halliburton still has a presence in Duncan, the place has fallen on hard times since the oil conglomerate moved its headquarters from the U.S. to Dubai. The town’s businesses — used-car lots, the Halliburton employees’ federal credit union, a sports bar called Drillers — sit along a four-lane highway, at the southern end of which is the Halliburton airfield. The rodeo was held nearby, under a low aluminum roof, but the grounds were sparsely attended on account of a high school football game. Two waitresses from Drillers, who wore cutoff jean shorts and black T-shirts that read will work for oil, stood by the event entrance, looking bored.

Midway through the rodeo, a short, thick man with a crisp gray mustache, clad head to toe in Wrangler, arrived behind the chutes with bluster, clapping backs and cracking jokes: Ted Kimzey, or Papa Ted, as some of the guys called him. He was garrulous and occasionally profane. When I asked Ted what the year had been like, his tone turned reflective. “I can’t even start to tell you,” he said. “I have a lot of accolades. Been to the nfr 17 times, was the clown of the year. But the things my boy has done surpasses anything. I can’t put it in words.” He paused and gathered himself. “It’s like being reborn, like winning all that shit all over again plus 10 percent.”

Sage got dressed, putting on compression shorts, jeans, chaps, and Kevlar vest. No cup. He pulled his spurs — which are square and dull, for traction — over his black boots. The public-address system cranked Mims’s “This Is Why I’m Hot,” and he started to nod his head. “It’s about to go down, son!” he said to a friend standing nearby. He clambered into the chutes and his father followed. So did his little brother, Trey. While Sage worked the rosin and soap into his rope with his glove hand, Ted held him by the shoulders and whispered in his ear. Sage nodded his head, and the chute opened. Ted barked, “Square and in the box! Square and in the box!” He managed to say this four or five times in the next eight seconds. Sage scored an 85. Afterward, Ted and another onlooker excitedly reenacted the ride, hands down below their crotches on imaginary bull ropes. The next night I sat on the chutes with two young cowboys. I asked who their heroes were. “Lane Frost,” said one. “And Sage Kimzey.”

Later that night, Kimzey flew to Mercedes, Texas, where a bull kicked him in the face, chipping two teeth.

<p>  	Sage in the living room of his family home in Strong City, Oklahoma</p>

Sage in the living room of his family home in Strong City, Oklahoma

<p>  	Sage and his father, Ted, on the Kimzey ranch</p>

Sage and his father, Ted, on the Kimzey ranch

A garage-size black truck called the Raminator sits in a parking lot out front of the Thomas & Mack arena. Its wheels are 5 feet high, and it has glowing red eyes. Occasionally it belches and spews smoke, serving as a sort of welcoming spirit creature for the National Finals Rodeo. Nearby, a bar has been set up in the parking lot. Because it’s Vegas, girls dance on the bar. Because it’s the rodeo finals, there’s a mechanical bull nearby. Inside the arena, small American flags are stuck into the back of every seat. “We get asked the question a lot,” roars the announcer. “ ‘Why be country?’ ‘Why live the Western way of life?’ It’s because we were borrrrrrrnnn this way!” The crowd erupts.

Las Vegas becomes a cowboy town for ten days each December. About 170,000 people attend the nfr, and the city estimates a nongaming economic impact of nearly $88 million. Celebrity sightings are common. One night Bryce Harper, the star outfielder for the Washington Nationals, shows up. The actor Vince Vaughn attends, as does Madison Bumgarner, the reigning World Series mvp, who grew up around rodeo in North Carolina. Standing six foot five with broad shoulders, he looks as though he could bench-press five bull riders at once. Here, though, he’s just another guy in the crowd watching a skinny bull rider from Oklahoma.

Kimzey bucks off his very first bull, on night one, but rides the next five. On day six I head to Treasure Island, where he is staying, a large pink casino with a pirate ship out front. He’s signing autographs in the hotel bar when I arrive. Nearby there’s a mechanical bull that, Kimzey notes with disdain, actually has a cow’s head. We hop into a cab and go to the Vegas Convention Center, which has been converted into a giant cowboy mall. After navigating a maze of fur coats, silver buckles, saddles, and Resistol hats, we arrive at a makeshift sound stage where Kimzey is scheduled to appear on a talk show. I sit down behind Jennifer while her son and two other riders take the stage. The host, a young woman in a brown dress, asks contestants what they look for in a girl on, the rural dating website. A rider named Tim Bingham answers, “Hot. Hot would be nice. Someone who likes rodeo, ’cause that’s pretty much all I do. And as least annoying as possible.”

Jennifer scowls. “ ‘Least annoying’?” she says. The host turns to Sage. What does he look for in a girl?

“This is going to sound really cheesy,” he says, “but honestly I’d look for exactly what my mother is.” Jennifer gives him a look that says she knows better, but she beams, too. After the show, Jennifer offers us a ride back to the hotel. We walk past the Copenhagen chewing-tobacco stand — “you’re not old enough,” Jennifer tells her son — and to the parking lot, where her rental sedan awaits. A steer rope is coiled in the front seat. Sage sits on it and starts fiddling with his iPhone.

Back at Treasure Island, Sage’s room is a small mountain of cowboy swag: Wrangler shirts, Cinch jeans, Copenhagen chewing tobacco, despite what Mom said, and enough Pendleton whiskey to stay drunk for weeks. Pendleton is a rodeo sponsor, and riders, regardless of their age, receive a bottle each time they win one of the ten go-rounds. For each go-round win they’re also given buckles — thick, arced, beautifully welded silver things the size of compact discs. On the bedside table, a small travel humidifier sucks the water from a bottle and coughs out mist. Jennifer gave it to him. “I get nosebleeds at altitude,” Sage says.

We order chicken tenders and he watches college basketball on TV. I ask how much money he made in the past year. He says about $400,000. Kimzey often tweets about money, sometimes with the hashtag #blessed. Do you love money, I ask, or is it just the metric for the sport? “I have a love for the Western heritage and the Western way of life,” he says. “We can do what we love and still make good money riding bulls.”

He’s quick to point out, though, that he’s fortunate. “I’ve had good guidance,” he says. “Most of these kids come from nothing. If they crack it for sixty thousand it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, I’m doing it!’ But as much money as we spend rodeoing, it’s real easy to get yourself in a hole. You get hurt one year, you make nothing.”

“It’s not like any other sport because you don’t have second chances,” he says. “If you mess up one time the bull’s going to make you pay for it. It’s not about having success, really. It’s a life-or-death sport. We’re putting our life on the line every time we nod.” Still, he says, “It’s not just hanging on for dear life. I know that a bunch of people do that, but for me it’s elegant. It really is. It’s like watching a couple dance. There’s just so much respect toward the bull. It’s pure bliss when a guy’s in perfect time and doing everything right.”

On the TV, a basketball player slices through the defense for a layup. “That was rank,” says Kimzey. His phone rings. It’s Ted, wondering what bull he’s on. “Bad Habit,” Sage says. “He’s good. He’s big, but nothing to sweat. Love you too, Dad.”

Kimzey arrives at the Thomas & Mack and heads into the guts of the stadium to get his arm taped. He can’t lift it above his shoulder, a minor injury he hasn’t bothered to mention. “When we look at the injury reports in other sports,” he says, “we kind of laugh. A concussion — it’s like, really? I had a buddy who rode with a broken ankle this summer. For months.”

The training room is a bright tile space full of injured cowboys. They’re attended to by a small medical staff led by a surgeon named Tandy Freeman and a trainer named Mike Rich. Together the two oversee pro rodeo’s medical team, which is made up of two full-time paid trainers, six contract employees, and many more volunteers. (Both Freeman and Rich work for free.) All expenses are covered by a sponsor, the Justin Boots company. 

Freeman drains some fluid from the elbow of Beau Hill, a tall, 35-year-old bull rider. “These guys are tougher than nails,” Rich says. “You’ve gotta talk ’em out of doing something versus into doing something. If it’s a gray area and we can protect them, we’ll let ’em go, we’ll let ’em try, even though it’s against medical advice in a normal environment.” An ambulance is parked outside and paramedics are on hand. So is a 30-rack of Coors. Later, I’ll ask Karl Stressman, pro rodeo’s commissioner, why the prca doesn’t hire full-time doctors, given the inherent dangers in rodeo. He seems genuinely surprised by the question. “My gut reaction is that I’ve never been asked that before,” he says. “Frankly, I don’t think that’s a possibility.” Change is slow in rodeo, and the questions of culpability that arise in other dangerous sports are not on the radar. “Risk,” Stressman says, “is part of the sport.”

Kimzey rides Bad Habit. The next night he rides a bull named Haunted Mesa to an 86.5, kissing his biceps after dismounting. On Thursday, he can clinch the gold buckle with a top-three finish on Guns & Donuts. I head up to the stands to watch with Jennifer, Bryce, and the rodeo queen. Sage fires out of his chute with arm high and torso tight, masterfully still. Five seconds in, the announcer’s voice speeds up until it sounds as though he might hyperventilate. Jennifer stands up and starts whipping her kimzey poster above her head in a circle, as though she were riding the bull herself. The whistle blows, and the score comes in: 84.5. Kimzey has clinched the gold buckle, the nfr title for best average score, and the Dodge Ram. Up in row Q, Jennifer receives a long line of well-wishers. Then, when the crowd empties out, she collapses into a seat with tears in her eyes.

Though the competition is decided, Kimzey still has to ride two more bulls. On Friday he sleeps until noon, then goes out and scores an 87.5. He runs off to the locker room, where all his competitors sign his lucky hat in a form of tribute. That night, I find Sage at the mgm Grand. The walls are adorned with photos of boxers — Tyson, Mayweather — but the crowd is all cowboy hats and miniskirts. Kimzey raises his hands in the air and closes his eyes on the dance floor. “Yes!” he yells. “Yes!” A group of girls approaches. They want their photo taken with a bull rider. “Well,” Kimzey says, his voice matter-of-fact, “I’m the best.”

On Saturday, the last day of the rodeo, Kimzey can take home one more honor: If he wins the finale decisively, he’ll break Matt Austin’s world record for most money earned over the course of a year in a single event. An hour before the rodeo, I meet Kimzey in the locker room. In the middle of the room stands a metal rack draped with bull ropes. On the surrounding benches sit athletes in various states of disarray.

J.W. Harris enters, sipping a Coors Light and looking as though he could keep a team of doctors busy for quite a while. A brace engulfs one knee, and a purple ring surrounds one eye. He sits, smiles, and pulls a second beer from his jacket. A small bottle of whiskey follows. These do not constitute preride hydration — with the outcome decided, Harris decides to sit out the final go-round and let his wounds heal. As I head out of the locker room to go watch with Jennifer, Sage shoots me a lopsided grin.

The rodeo itself has an anticlimactic air. Most of the winners have already been decided. But you can’t take anything for granted. Before his ride, Kimzey does his dance, then hops on his bull, Bottle Rocket, and rosins up his rope in the yellow chutes. The fireworks go off, the crowd screams, and he nods his head. The second the gate swings open he begins to bounce. First left, then right. His magic stillness seems gone. Five or six seconds in, he flops violently to the side and off the bull. Bottle Rocket goes at him horns first. Dust rises from the dirt floor, obscuring the attack. “He got gut-shot!” yells the announcer. “The hind leg of that bull hit him right in the guts!” The bull trots off. Kimzey stays down. From up in row Q, it doesn’t look good.

Jennifer’s hands go to her mouth. She catches her breath. Then, slowly, her son stands up, brushes off some dirt, and walks away in his lucky boots.

The print version of this story misstates the day on which the writer arrived at Cheyenne Frontier Days. In addition, the steer wrestler involved in a rhino-horn smuggling ring remains active in pro rodeo as of January 2015.

Abe Streep is a contributing editor for Outside magazine. He lives in Wyoming.

Dustin Aksland is a photographer originally from Modesto, California. His most recent project is the book Happy Damage.