Triple Crown Winner, Wade Sundell.  

Photography: Mallory Beinborn

Editor's Note:

Thanks to Lori O'Harver of Bronc Riding Nation for these great profiles of American Champions Wade Sundell & Sarah Rose McDonald

by  Lori O’Harver, Cowboys & Indians

From Iowa cowboy to rodeo-winning millionaire, bronc rider Sundell has had a long, hard ride.

Wade Sundell came storming out of the tiny town of Boxholm, Iowa, on his quest to ride the world’s most explosive bucking horses in 2007. Before that, nobody outside of Iowa ever really associated the state with world-class cowboys.

Left to right: Iowans Wade Sundell and Dave Morehead and Minnesotan Tanner Aus. Photography: Mallory Beinborn

The emerald green agricultural jewel has impossibly lush grass and cattle that are so squarely built and butterball fat that farm kids don’t even think about trying to tip them over on hot, humid summer nights when they’ve been into the beer. Peaches & Cream sweet corn grows as tall as Jack’s beanstalk from the rich, black soil and is sold on parking lots from the mounded beds of pickup trucks to local connoisseurs who judge each ear with the practiced eye of patrons of the art. An artist painting Iowa Americana wouldn’t be moved to include cowboys.

That might have changed last Sunday at RFD-TV’s The American Presented by Polaris Ranger when two joyful cowboys stood on the winner’s podium in the heart of AT&T Stadium. One of the world’s best bucking horse men, Dave Morehead of Three Hills Rodeo Company, and Sundell, the wild, bearded bronc rider with the contagious grin who had just become an instant millionaire in a single 8-second ride. Both Iowans bursting with pride after years of dedication to excellence in rodeo athleticism from a state that isn’t automatically granted respect by the rest of the rodeo community in spite of a strong, honorable history in the game.

Left to right: Iowans Wade Sundell and Dave Morehead and Minnesotan Tanner Aus. Photography: Mallory Beinborn

Wade’s father, Doug, had a passion and a lot of success riding high-flying bucking horses. The family was either on the rodeo trail or submerged in Wade and his brother, Jesse’s high school wrestling careers. Wade qualified for the state championships once in the 112-pound division and twice at 119 pounds. Fit as a fiddle and rail thin now, he rides broncs at 155 pounds and is relieved he’ll never have to cut weight again.

In 2007, Wade Sundell bought his PRCA permit and tested the waters by going to 15 rodeos that were pretty close to home. The next year, he took his talent on the road, and by 2009, he was on his way to the Big Show in Las Vegas. In nine years in the pros, he’s won almost every major rodeo, been to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seven times, and has earned around $1.5 million.

The road is hard and expensive. Unlike other professional athletes, all expenses are borne by the contestant with no guarantees of a return. They gamble with their lives on every ride and pray that Lady Luck throws in with them. An average year’s mileage on Sundell’s 31-year-old (recently overhauled for back issues) body is around 85,000. Travel expenses eat the lion’s share of winnings, but at the end of the day, money isn’t why they do what they do. For bronc riders, it’s not just the challenge of riding the professional athletes who live to bend to no man’s will. It’s also an answer to an ancient call of the wild that’s impossible to deny.

Two great horses carried Sundell to the biggest paycheck in the long history of bronc riding. Lady Luck was with him from the start at The American when he drew the great Canadian bucking horse, Stampede Warrior. The two had tangoed the year before for the win that made Sundell two for two at rodeo’s newest and most lucrative event. This year, the plot thickened as another million dollars was offered to the only three contestants who had swept their events in the two-year history of the rodeo.

The horse who put him through to the champion’s round in 2015 didn’t fail him.

“If I got to pick a horse I wanted in the championship round, it would have been Maple Leaf,” Sundell said of the Texas-born champion bucking horse. Lady Luck was firmly locked on Sundell’s arm when Maple Leaf officially became his contest mount and stayed there through the barrel racing and tie-down roping while the other two Triple Crown contestants came up just short of wins.

Bronc riding history was made with Sundell’s 90.75-point ride that, in typical Wade Sundell style, risked it all with every move. He doesn’t know how to safety up in life or on the back of a bucking horse, no matter what’s at stake.

With eyes still wide with shock as the reality of his $1.1 million-dollar win sank in, he was asked at the follow-up press conference what he would say to young people who were bound to be inspired to follow in the footprints of his well-worn riding boots.

“I’d tell them there are going to be big bumps in the road and hard times ahead, but not to focus on them. Keep gassing it, keep giving it everything you’ve got. Never back up!”

Later, his family and friends gathered and celebrated into the night. There was beer and wrestling matches and smiles so wide that faces were sore for days. The cowboys of Iowa and his rabid, international fans rejoiced. The bearded, happy-go-lucky cowboy with abnormally large adrenaline jets was in Dallas, buying rounds for the house with an ear cocked to the faint, but steady drum of feathered hooves the size of dinner plates that reverberate across his soul.


Sarah Rose McDonald rode Bling to victory. Photography: Mallory Beinborn

by  Lori O’Harver, Cowboys & Indians

Adding new dimensions to America’s homegrown sport brings much needed attention to the game.

Four years ago, the Western world started hearing early rumblings about a one-day rodeo with a million-dollar purse. Even the most imaginative among us had no real idea of the level of excitement that would generate. We sure didn’t see the complexities of the qualification processes for the cowboy and cowgirl contestants or the added dimension and exposure that RFD-TV’s The AmericanPresented by Polaris Ranger would contribute to the sport.

Promoting the great qualities and ethics of the sport of rodeo in a nation that’s become decidedly urban in population is important to the growth if not the very survival of the culture. There are challenges involved. The culture, and so the sport, has its own language. More than 80 percent of the U.S. population is urban with little or no exposure to large animals, their natures, or native power. Most of the collection of events included under the umbrella of rodeo were born on the great cattle operations that fed our country and continue to do that today. Unlike mainstream sports like baseball, football, and soccer, rodeo isn’t a part of every child’s physical education activity that lends a basic understanding without much effort. If rodeo is to be a part of the future, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Events like The American provide legitimacy, exposure, and excitement, and create interest simply based on the prize money. Doing a great job of showcasing the skills, work ethic, sportsmanship, and fine animal stewardship is vital. Part of that showcasing means providing an understandable format. Tying that format in with quality, established traditions is wise.

This year, the RFD-TV family added another million-dollar dimension to the format called The Triple Crown. Open to the three contestants who had won their respective events for the last two years, repeat wins this year by all three would have seen them split the million equally.

“Producing three champions who have won two years in a row is one of the most amazing things that’s happened on its own with The American,” said Randy Bernard, CEO of RFD-TV Events. “The Triple Crown creates an incredible amount of excitement, but it also puts a lot of pressure on these athletes because now they’re running for $1 million out of a $2 million purse.”

The contenders were Kaleb Driggers, the team roping header from Stephenville, Texas; Wade Sundell, the colorful bronc riding Iowa native, and Lisa Lockhart, the South Dakota professional barrel racer who’s partnered with the heartthrob of most every fan of fast horses who drop into the dirt to turn three oil barrels and accelerate like rockets away: the big, drop-dead gorgeous buckskin gelding known the world over as Louie. All of these Triple Crown contestants would have to win their respective events for a third time. That would mean placing in the top four in the opening round to advance to the championship round, then beating the competition in the final four.

Driggers didn’t make it past the first round of the tournament-style competition, leaving Sundell and Lockhart going into the final, “four man” round. Sundell won his event handily on Maple Leaf, the horse he would have chosen to ride had the choice been his. It rarely is for a bronc rider. They rely on a random draw in competitions like this. He was marched to the podium to wait on pins and needles for the tie down roping to conclude and the barrel racing to begin.

The crowd raised the roof of AT&T Stadium when relative rookie Sarah Rose McDonald and her freakishly fast roan mare Bling laid down a smoking run to take the lead, but all eyes were on Louie as he made his way up the alley to run under the seasoned veteran who loves him. Every heart in the 80,000 seat house stopped for a beat and breathed a quiet prayer of some kind, wanting the best for these two champions and loving the spirit of competition no matter who they wanted to emerge the winner of that entire $1,000,000, Lockhart or Sundell.

Aside from raw talent, Louie’s claim to fame is consummate equine professionalism and consistency. It’s what put the pair into Triple Crown contention in the first place. He’s never won a world championship, a goal that Lockhart pursues relentlessly feeling that her great horse deserves his place in the record books. No one who loves a fine horse doesn’t understand that and hopes for it right along with her.

Their run was flawless. Unfortunately, it was also two one-hundredths too slow for first place. The $1,000,000 belonged to Sundell in its entirety.

As for McDonald, she won a whopping $100,000 for her Sunday’s work. When asked how she’d spend it, she replied, “It belongs to Bling. She brought me here to win it. I’ll be spending it on her.”