Calgary's fast-rising rodeo star lands college scholarship

SCOTT CRUICKSHANK, CALGARY HERALD

Heart racing, he lowers himself onto the beast.

Candle Maker represents the first bucking horse of his life. As in, the very first.

He’s never before competed in a rodeo. Now here he is — nestled into a chute, right hand clamped tight, everyone watching.

And what do you know?

Connor Hamilton enjoys a splendid ride. With aplomb, he slides off the bronc and lands on his feet.

All that remains? A round of appreciative applause and a meaty score (in the open class yet) — the perfect start to a burgeoning bareback career.

“But then the horn goes.”

Meaning that, oops, Hamilton’s dismount had been premature.

“I’m like, ‘Oh man,’ ” he says. “I’d thought I’d been out there for eight seconds, so I just hopped off.”

So no score. Just a sheepish walk back to the chutes.

In the aftermath of the rookie gaffe, he was spared guffaws. No fence-sitting cowboys bothered to poke fun. They’d never heard of him. Probably didn’t expect to see him again.

Soon, though, they learned his name.

That debut weekend in Kindersley, Sask., Hamilton rebounded to split top money in the novice class. He capped his sensational summer by capturing the novice bareback championship at the Calgary Stampede.

“Just a blur … everything happens so fast,” says Hamilton. “I started rodeoing, started making money every weekend. I figured it would take me quite a while to start winning.”

Clearly, he underestimated himself.

Look at how far the Calgary kid has come.

Between his bucking baptism and his first day of classes on a full-ride rodeo scholarship?

Would you believe 90 days?

Think about that.

“Now I’m down here and everything’s crazy,” Hamilton, 19, says the other afternoon from the Southwestern Oklahoma State University campus. “Me and my family and even my extended family and friends, they can hardly believe it. Who would have ever thought that I’d be down in Oklahoma, living here and riding rodeos?

“I kind of came out of the blue.”

Only a year ago, Hamilton was serving as an undersized forward for the Calgary Mustangs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

No shock there. His is a hockey family.

Older brother Robert is a defenceman for the University of Vermont. Younger brother Daly is currently trying out for a spot on the blueline of the AJHL’s Lloydminster Bobcats.

But, in the middle of last winter, Hamilton hung up his skates.

He decided that — despite being a city kid with no background in the bucking racket — he would become a cowboy.

“When I first got this idea in my head,” says Hamilton, “I told my dad (Don), ‘Whenever I start rodeoing, I’m not going to give up until I win at least one belt buckle.’ That was my goal. The first rodeo, I won a buckle and some money. I just kept going and going, and everything went straight up from there.

“I’ve got that focus in my mind that I’m going to be the best bareback rider in the world by the time I’m done. I don’t want to let anything beat me. That’s probably why I’m doing so well right now. I just want it more than anyone, I think.”

Now he’s settled in Weatherford, Okla., working on his degree — major in business, minor in entrepreneurship — and honing his rodeo skills.

The season opens in two weeks in Colby, Kansas, but, already, Hamilton and his new buddies have been hitting amateur events — in Cherokee, Okla., in Gainesville, Tex.

It’s a new world.

“Pretty crazy, especially for me,” says Hamilton, 5-foot-8 and 165 lb. “Hot and humid and cowboys walking around everywhere. It’s different — a cool atmosphere because everyone rallies around that rodeo-type thing. You don’t get that a lot back home — it’s a lot smaller in Canada, the whole rodeo scene. It’s huge down here.”

Team practices, which start this week, include regimented weight-room work.

The Bulldogs also have access to their own ranch, only a few minutes from campus, in addition to a riding arena where, weekly, they can climb onto bucking horses. Also available to students are spur boards — “to practise quick feet and keeping yourself snappy” — and mechanical bucking machines.

“We’ve got a football team, baseball team, basketball team,” says Hamilton, “but rodeo’s definitely the biggest thing at our school.”

He adds that his story — suburbs to saddles — isn’t that unusual.

“The new day and age of the cowboy now … it’s not just farm kids,” says Hamilton, who grew up in The Hamptons, in northwest Calgary. “All of us out here never grew up ranching and all that. Lots of (rural) guys … they just want to be that cowboy that rides bucking horses — they just like the image.

“But I’m coming in with a fresh attitude, still learning lots of stuff. I’ve kind of got that fresh look on it, thinking, ‘This whole scene, it’s not going to be a bunch of old cowboys. It’s going to be a bunch of rodeo athletes.’ That’s what our school is now.”

scruickshank@calgaryherald.com

Twitter/CruickshankCH