Sage Kimzey Sets New Regular-Season Gold Standard
By Kendra Santos
Neil Armstrong will always be the first astronaut ever to walk on the moon. Sage Kimzey will always be the first cowboy ever to win a million dollars in a regular season. Armstrong took his permanent place in world history in 1969. Kimzey made his magical mark in Western-world record books in 2017.
This is not Kimzey’s first phenomenal feat. In 2013, Sage set a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association record for most money won on a permit with $47,726. In 2014, the Strong City, Okla., sensation became only the second rookie bull rider ever to win a world title (the other being Bill Kornell in 1963), after winning the 10-head Wrangler National Finals Rodeo average and the RAM Top Gun Award for most money won at the NFR.
That same 2014 season, Kimzey set both the all-time rookie earnings and all-time bull riding season earnings records with $318,631. To be clear up front, bareback rider Richmond Champion won $1.1 million that same year at the 2014 American at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the largest lump-sum check in cowboy history, and saddle bronc rider Wade Sundell followed suit with a $1.1 million check of his own there in 2016.
In 2015, Kimzey rewrote his own bull riding earnings record with $327,178, which set the mark for most annual PRCA earnings ever in any event. Kimzey won his third-straight PRCA gold buckle in 2016, the year he also became the youngest millionaire in professional rodeo history at 22. But those achievements were chump change compared to this kid’s latest and greatest accomplishment in 2017.
Just when the Western world was starting to wonder what this bad-cat kid could possibly do to outdo himself, he’s put together a dream season like none other—ever—with over $1 million won riding into the NFR. Rodeo’s Super Bowl will serve as a colossal cowboy bonus on a dream season never before experienced by any of the greats before him.
At 23, Kimzey has pieced together a page of cowboy history that was beyond even his own wildest dreams. He delivered a dominant list of hits on this record run, with the final chapter of his 2017 bestseller yet to play out at the Dec. 7-16 Wrangler NFR at the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas.
Kimzey’s gold-paved 2017 regular season reads like a never-ending highlights reel, and includes the W at two of the richest rodeos on the planet—The American, where he won $433,333.33 in February, and the Calgary Stampede, where he earned $108,000 up in Canada in July. For those into bantering about whether or not Kimzey could cut it against PBR cowboys, there was a PBR contingent at both of those rodeos, and you’ll get nothing but mutual respect out of the bull riders themselves on that subject.
“I’m kind of bridging the gap,” Kimzey said. “And I think that’s good for every part of the sport. You have PRCA fans watching the PBR now, and vice-versa. The division is starting to go away, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Yes, the unity of one cowboy nation is the ticket to extending our borders into mainstream mode, and is the fuel needed for the cowboy sport to not only survive, but thrive. Kimzey’s 2017 is, in fact, a non-denominational cowboy success story.
His “going where no cowboy has ever gone before” campaign also included $186,913 won on the 2017 Championship Bull Riding (CBR) tour, including the $100,000 bonus that goes to the year-end champ.
Kimzey threw a one-two punch on Monday and Tuesday, July 24-25, that took some swagger to even attempt. The CBR regular-season leader skipped opening night at the CBR World Finals, which is held in conjunction with the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne, to fly to Salt Lake City and win $52,667 and a gold medal at the Days of ’47 Cowboy Games and Rodeo that evening.
It was a huge gamble, as returning to Cheyenne only for closing night on Tuesday left Kimzey’s back—and that hefty $100,000 bonus that could easily have ended up in another pocket—exposed. Kimzey doubled down, and won both.
“That was a nerve-wracking decision, and a tough one to make,” he said. “In hindsight, I made the right one. I went into the CBR Finals with a three-bull lead, but I turned out two of five possible Finals bulls on opening night. My thinking was that that $50,000 at Salt Lake counts for the (PRCA) standings, and that’s almost an insurmountable amount of money not to try to win it. But not being there that first night at Cheyenne left me vulnerable and definitely opened the door to not win the $100,000 CBR bonus.”
Many an event producer would have cussed Kimzey for cutting out on the first half of his finals. I was there, and Tuff Hedeman clearly saw the situation through his own set of cowboy eyes.
“I admire Sage, because he has the guts and the independence to do what he thinks is best for him,” said three-time PRCA world champion bull rider, PBR world champion bull rider and founder, and CBR kingpin Hedeman. “He does exactly what I would have done, and that’s go at the best opportunities in front of him.
“I’ve always said Jim Sharp was the best I’ve ever seen. Sage is a right-handed Jim Sharp the way he rides rank bulls ridiculously easy. He does it by being so fundamentally correct and sound. He’s legit. He’s a badass.”
Yes, Kimzey is coming as close to having it all as any cowboy ever has. Perhaps this personable young cowboy is the one who will prove you don’t have to pick just one path if you’re good enough to win wherever you want to go.
“My ultimate is to be remembered as the best bull rider ever,” Kimzey said. “To do that I think I need as many gold buckles as Donnie Gay, if not more. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid to win more than eight gold buckles in the PRCA. Nine is definitely my goal. There’s no question that Donnie Gay is the best bull rider of all time. He has the most gold buckles, and none of the bull riders were split in different associations back then.
“Because Donnie won the most gold buckles, he still has a voice in the world of bull riding. He’s a recognizable figure for multiple generations in the sport of rodeo and beyond.”
Kimzey wants those nine titles, but his bottom line does not end with buckles.
“I want to be remembered as the best bull rider ever,” he said. “It’s pretty plain and simple for me. But I don’t just want to win gold buckles. I want to have a positive impact on people. And the gold buckles are what’s going to give me the platform to do that.
“I want to reach out past what happens in the arena. The rodeo arena is so small in the big game of life. I want to help people—kids, old people, everybody. It doesn’t take any time or effort to brighten up someone’s day.”
The sport’s elders say Sage’s lofty goals are reasonable and within his reach.
“Right now, I don’t think even Sage knows how good he is,” Gay said. “He rides rank bulls as easy as anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s got his sights set on my record, and that’s in the PRCA. If anything gets in the way of the big goal, he’ll have trouble doing it. But if he stays focused on the big goal, he can do it—and do it with consecutive championships.
“There are great bulls and great cowboys in every organization. (D&H Cattle Company’s) Bruiser is the bull of the year in both the PRCA and the PBR this year. My advice to Sage is that he not let ego and all the chatter get in the way of his bank account. In the end, when you ride bulls for a living you’re just a piece of meat for the grinder. You better do it your way, because when the grinder gets you, you’re done.”
Sage is smart enough to realize that a bull rider’s prime is basically a blink. He gets that his is the most dangerous event, and that there’s a reason for the old saying that when you ride bulls “it’s not a matter of if you get hurt, but when and how bad.”
“You don’t see very many really successful bull riders past the age of 30,” he said. “That’s just how it is. Bull riding is life or death. On the financial side, the money I win now needs to last me 60 years, not 10. So it’s a financial planning thing for me, not a dream planning thing. Hopefully, if I’m smart with my money and stay on the right road now, I’ll be financially stable my whole life.”
The PBR again invited the reigning PRCA world champion to its Velocity Tour Finals at the South Point in Las Vegas the end of October. Winning that not only netted Kimzey $26,300, but also advanced him to the PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals the first week of November across town at T-Mobile Arena. There, Kimzey added about $8,000 more to his 2017 cause, and got a “Sage Kimzey is the real deal” out of nine-time PRCA world champ, and PBR founder and commentator Ty Murray on the telecast.
In addition to winning a laundry list of PRCA rodeos this year, Kimzey also bagged a $20,000 bonus in a July 1 match against PBR Stock Contractor of the Year Chad Berger’s notorious Pearl Harbor at the Mandan (N.D.) Rodeo Days Celebration in Berger’s hometown. Judges marked the ride 92 points, and Kimzey became just the fifth bull rider ever to make the whistle on Pearl Harbor.
“The money I won at the Velocity Tour Finals got me to $1 million for 2017,” Kimzey said. “As awesome as it is, the money is secondary to living this lifestyle and getting to do what I love. I never set out to get rich riding bulls. I’ve always done it because I love it. But there are only 230,000 Americans who make a million dollars a year, so there’s definitely a sense of pride and accomplishment that goes with it.
“I’m not sure it’s really sunk in how much money I’ve made this year. It doesn’t seem real, and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around it. After the CBR Finals is when I stopped and said, ‘Holy smokes.’ Between Calgary, Salt Lake City and the CBR Finals, that put me at $270,000 in nine days. July was an extremely good month for me.”
Kimzey grew up competing in all of the events. “The summer of my junior year in high school is when I started having a bunch of success in the bull riding,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was going to be a bull rider. I started winning at amateur and open rodeos, and won $40,000 as a 16-year-old kid that summer.”
Sage has been wise beyond his years all his life, and has always had a knack for getting things done early. He started preschool at 3, and graduated from Cheyenne (Okla.) High School at 17 in 2012. Cheyenne’s about 10 miles from Kimzey’s actual hometown of Strong City, which sports a total population of 30 people, including five Kimzeys.
In addition to Sage, the Kimzey family includes longtime PRCA clown and NFR barrelman dad Ted and mom Jennifer, Sage’s big sister, Dusta, and little brother, Trey. Kimzey’s girlfriend, Alexis Bloomer, often travels with him and is also part of the family.
“I’m very passionate about all my goals,” Kimzey said. “Now, more than anything, I want to inspire the next generation and all the young kids coming up. Today’s world is full of a bunch of stuff kids shouldn’t be looking up to and idolizing. If I can be a positive role model for kids, that’s probably the most rewarding thing I can do now.
“I’m a firm believer in karma and the fact that God takes care of people who are doing things the right way. It’s not something you can see, taste, touch or smell. We all work hard. I have prepared myself to be in these situations, but this year is a supernatural thing. I hope I can use any influence I have to make the world a better place. Bull riding is never going to be my God. It’s not where it ends for me. I’m going to keep fighting the good fight and following my heart. There’s a much bigger picture in all of this. Rodeo’s given me so much, and being a part of something bigger than yourself is cool.”
Kimzey is questioned constantly about his future plans, but will be taking it one bull at a time for now.
“This year is coming to a close, and yet 2018 still seems so far into the future when it comes to answering all the questions about which way I’m going to go, and especially the big question about how much I’ll ride in the PBR,” he said. “The social-media debates, the naysayers and armchair quarterbacks don’t get to me anymore. None of that is important. In today’s world, I think I also need a PBR world title to be the best ever. I’ve openly said that, and I believe it. But the timeline on my career will be my own. The way I see it, if I follow my heart I really can’t lose.”
Sage wisdom for such a young man. He’ll take on each new challenge with a strong and stable body and soul. The rigors of the rodeo road keep Kimzey tuned up and in tip-top physical shape. His fitness regimen when he’s home includes a lot of stretching and plyometrics (AKA jump training, with the goal of increasing power in terms of both speed and strength).
But experience has taught Kimzey—whose 5’7”, 145-pound build is basically textbook for a bull rider—that the mind is mightier than muscle in his demanding, dangerous line of work.
“Almost all of it is mental,” is his strong opinion. “You see guys in various physical shape have big success. On the physical side, you need to prepare yourself to where when you show up you feel like you’re ready to win, and capable and worthy of winning. But I’d say winning in my event is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”
If you watch him, you’ll notice he’s never too high or low. Kimzey’s natural, even-keel calm is serving him well.
“I’m a very grounded person,” he said. “I don’t hit rock bottom, and I don’t get caught up. I’ve gotten better about that every year. I watch and read a lot of sports psychology, and none of the greatest athletes do peaks and valleys. They stay level. I never go up or down a whole lot. I’m a huge believer in working hard, then trusting the process.”
Kimzey’s 2017 season has been crazy cool. But when you break it down, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. It’s easy to be a gracious winner. It’s those tough times that test you.
“There was a time this winter when I hurt my shoulder, I had the flu and I was way down in the standings,” Sage said. “It was a tough time for me. But even at that time I was OK. I credit that to my foundation, the people around me and the way I look at the world.
“I grew up dreaming about what I’m getting to do now. Every part of it is romantic, in my eyes—even the late-night drives, and when my body’s beat up and sore. I enjoy it all—the struggles and the good times. My dreams included all of it, so I really am living my dream.”
The cowboy community is standing at full attention.
“Here’s the deal: The money’s going to get spent, no matter where you make it,” Gay said. “All the money I won got spent, too. Guess what’s still talked about? My eight world titles. Everybody has a decision to make on what his ultimate goal is, including Sage. Sage has his sights set on my record, so he should stay on track and complete that goal. That should take him six more years.
“It’s up to Sage, but my best suggestion would be to stick to the plan, get the goal, then go do whatever else he wants when he’s 30. If he gets it done and becomes the most recognizable name in all of the Western world, nobody else will have his credentials and he can go do whatever else he wants to do. Sage might really be superman.”
The living legends among us are typically the toughest to impress.
“It’s always difficult to compare one generation to another, because times, conditions, bulls and everything else change,” Hedeman said. “It was different in Jim Shoulders’ and Freckles Brown’s day than it was in my day, and it was different in my day than it is today. If Sage stays as driven as he is now and stays healthy, he’ll be in the conversation when they talk about the best ever. The numbers don’t lie.
“Sage Kimzey is an amazing talent. And he’s very versatile. He can ride all kinds of bulls, and make it look easy. He’s that good. I hope he continues down his chosen path and doesn’t get baited in by all the talk. It appears to me he’s made pretty good decisions so far, based on the success he’s had. This is Sage’s show, and he gets to call the shots.”
That’s exactly Kimzey’s plan for 2017 and beyond.
“When it’s all said and done I want to be remembered as the best ever,” Kimzey said. “Inside the arena that’s exactly what I want. Outside the arena, I want them to say I was a good and honest man who worked hard. I want the mothers to be able to look at their kids and say, ‘Be like Sage.’ And not only for being able to stay on bulls for eight seconds, but for the way I live my life.”
Editor’s Note: Riding in thirteen CBR Road to Cheyenne events in 2017, Kimzey never failed to advance to the Semifinal round; eight times advanced to Shoot Out Round; three times he walked out of the arena with Tuff Hedeman as the event Champion. He rode 28 of 35 bulls during the regular season and his total CBR earnings for 2017 was $189,512.50. Kimzey won earned the top ranking during the regular season of CBR competition with 2,385 points, $89,512.50, and an 80% riding percentage from the 2017 CBR Road to Cheyenne professional bull riding tour.
Follow Kendra Santos throughout the run of the 2017 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and beyond.
Special thanks to photographers extraordinaire Tom Donoghue, Hubbell Rodeo Photos, James Phifer and Todd Brewer.
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