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Stevensville bareback rider Richie Champion readies for National Finals Rodeo after 'weird' 2020

Richie Champion
Posted at 6:24 PM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-02 21:54:09-05

STEVENSVILLE — It's been a year of adjustments in the sports world, and rodeo is no different.

The National Finals Rodeo begins on Thursday, and for Stevensville bareback rider Richie Champion, he's headed to his sixth NFR, but there were plenty of challenges along the way.

"This year was definitely different for sure," Champion told MTN Sports. "It started off normal with all of our big rodeos in the winter were a go and very thankful for that. Most of the time, all of the money we win to make the NFR is from June to September. A few guys have a good winter and usually pick up a bunch of money then and I was lucky to have a decent one.

"I was right inside the top 20 once COVID hit, and then it was just like everybody else wondering what was going to happen."

Champion, who moved to Stevensville from Texas in May of 2019, finished the regular season ranked seventh in the world bareback results with $64,149.08 earned, a stark difference to what the past NFR's have typically required for qualification. The top 15 money-earners in each event qualify for the NFR.

"Normally it takes $100,000 to make the NFR, for the 10th or 15th guy, and this year it took like $45,0000 or $50,000," Champion said. "Been a weird year but we all found a way to enjoy it."

Champion said he and his traveling partner, fellow bareback rider Caleb Bennett of Corvallis, combined to put about 60,000 miles on their vehicles through traveling to all of the rodeos over the summer.

And the travel was anything but easy. He said in a normal year, he could be gone for three weeks doing rodeos. For example, his run could start in Arkansas, then he'd work his way through Kansas and New Mexico then up to Washington and Oregon, before coming back to Montana.

This year, events and trips were more scattered and scarce.

"This season was like, let’s go to Nephi, Utah, let’s go to Pretty Prairie, Kansas, the next day, then get back to Stanford, Montana, by 1 p.m. the day after that for a lot less money, but it had to be done," Champion said. "If you wanted to make the NFR this year that’s how you’d have to do it."

In a typical year, Champion said he enters about 100 rodeos and competes in about 80. This year, he entered 70 and competed in about 50. Because of the small number of rodeos around the country, each competition was loaded with the world's top talent.

"Usually in a given week in the summer, there's 15 rodeos going on and you can only make four of them," Champion explained. "So, the 100 guys going are all spread out. This year, there was nowhere else for anybody to go so it was the top 50 to 70 bareback riders in the world everywhere you went, so it was basically an NFR-caliber rodeo, as far as competition goes, at every single stop, which definitely made things tough, but I'd say it made us all better."

Even when it seemed like the NFR hung in the balance, Champion felt it was best to commit and compete rather than risk sitting home and missing out.

"When we started this out we didn’t know if we were going to have a Finals to go to. There are so many unknowns and me and Caleb both just decided, hey, if there’s no NFR, but we put everything we have into making it, at least we know we did," Champion said. "It'd suck to be sitting at home watching other guys at the NFR because we didn't rodeo because we didn't think they were going to have one. Once we adopted that mindset, it was business as usual.

"You just kind of had to forget about the money and just go straight on the fact that we love doing this and this is our job, so let's go to work."

But there were some positives to glean from the season. Champion said he saw friends from around the country more often at rodeos than he typically would, and some would even convoy together from event to event as they all tried to squeeze in as many rodeos as possible.

So now he heads for Texas, where the NFR will commence in Arlington at the home of the MLB's Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field, instead of its usual home in Las Vegas. The NFR runs through Dec. 3-12 in Arlington.

"It’s not going to be a typical NFR but I’ve never ridden on a baseball field so I’m looking forward to that," Champion added with a laugh.