By: Kristian Limas
June 23, 2016
PUEBLO, Colo. – It’s tough to imagine Derek Kolbaba as a bit of an elder statesman this season. When he made his 2016 Built Ford Tough Series debut in Oklahoma City in January, the then 19-year-old bull rider was coming off three BlueDEF Tour event victories.
Kolbaba was the man –well, kid- of the hour.
Although with the rise of Jess Lockwood, and officially leaving his teen years behind, Kolbaba has settled into a shared spotlight with the other rookie sensation on the block.
Kolbaba is currently ninth in the world standings and leads the Rookie of the Year race, but just because there have been two young gun sensations to take the Built Ford Tough Series by storm this season does not mean it’s easy.
Kolbaba is a product of his upbringing, and in many ways was built to be a bull rider one way or another.
Derek’s father, Kyle, was a rider in the PRCA and played a huge role in not only encouraging his son, but making sure he laid down a solid fundamental foundation.
“Well, my dad rode bulls professionally back in the 90’s so that’s who definitely taught me how to ride bulls,” Kolbaba said. “It’s kind of nice growing up having somebody that’s been through it and done it to bring you up the right way so you don’t have to go through all the hard knocks.”
That isn’t to say the younger Kolbaba didn’t get his fair share of bumps along the way, but given that learning how to ride bulls is a bit of an inexact science Kolbaba absorbed all he could from his dad as he grew up.
“With my dad, he just taught me the basics of things, getting to the front end and taking the power away from them bulls and always just moving forward,” Kolbaba said.
Kolbaba picked up more than just the basics. Perhaps the most important attribute he learned that led to his eventual success was try.
Riding bulls naturally means being thrown down a lot and hard, but the ability to get back up and try again is perhaps the most important thing a young bull rider can learn in their development.
“The big thing was just to try,” Kolbaba said. “If you feel you’re a little out one jump you have one more jump to get back into the middle. It was pretty great having someone like my dad to push me through everything, and my whole family has been a big supporter of it.”
Kolbaba took the next step during his teenage years and started attending Shane Proctor’s annual bull riding school in nearby Nespelem, Washington. Kolbaba reveled in the chance to polish his technique and learn from one of the best in the business.
The Walla Walla, Washington, bull rider demonstrated immense promise at the time, but it was still hard to believe that he would eventually be riding with, and against, his mentor.
“When I was about 15 or 14, I went to Shane’s school. It wasn’t too far from my house,” Kolbaba said. “I always think anytime you can go somewhere and get a little extra critiquing and having those guys around you just giving you pointers is great.”
While he didn’t have much more to learn technique wise, he was still willing to pick up anything he could.
“I knew the basics and I had been riding bulls for a few years, big bulls I guess you could say, so there it was really about going over there and really getting everything down,” Kolbaba said. “The best thing about going to a school is you can get on multiple bulls. You can get on a lot of bulls in a short time and having guys like that there giving you feedback.”
Kolbaba would attend Proctor’s school for three years. He would spend much of his time learning how to pick apart other riders’ style and implement it with his own.
He won the Stoney Covington Memorial Buckle his final year. The award is given to the rider who Proctor feels “shows the most heart and improvement” over the course of the two-day camp.
“I went to his school for like three years and it was great going up there and just learning little things,” Kolbaba said. “Also just asking questions about what it’s like and getting here at this level. Not even just the bull riding aspect of things, like (how to) put up with everything else.”
Those lessons would come in handy when Kolbaba went 2-for-3 at the 2015 BlueDEF Finals and earned a spot at that year’s Built Ford Tough World Finals.
He followed it up this season by winning three BlueDEF tour events, as well as a Touring Pro Division event, to earn five BFTS exemptions in January.
Now, solidly among the Top 10 bull riders in the world, he has managed to remain grounded and focused as he makes a push for the World Championship.
That’s part of the polish he gained in his training. Getting to learn what living under the bright lights of the BFTS was a big help when he finally arrived.
“There’s a lot more to it than just the bull riding,” Kolbaba said. “But when it all comes down to it you can break it down and know that your job is to come here and ride the animal they put underneath you and just let everything flow by.”
It seems to be working, Kolbaba is currently 17-for-46 on the BFTS and already has a 15/15 Bucking Battle win (Anaheim, California) and a BFTS event win (Des Moines, Iowa) under his belt. He battled through a wrist injury during the first half of the season but has bounced back with a vengeance since.
In Decatur, Texas, he didn’t balk at the chance of taking on reigning PBR World Champion Bull SweetPro’s Long John. Kolbaba lasted only 4.75 seconds, but was confident that it wouldn’t be the last time the two squared off.
In a way, it’s beneficial that the spotlight has slightly moved off Kolbaba. Being a teenage sensation brings with it a weight of expectations unlike anything else, and while Kolbaba is in a tight race for Rookie of the Year, he has his sights on something else.
“I don’t really look at the little races, the rookie standings or things like that,” Kolbaba said. “As long as I’m still here and getting to come to these events, that’s great; but when it all comes down to it, there’s only one position I want to shoot for and that’s number one in the world.”
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