BY RON ELAND
North Hawaii News
McKennon Wimberly admits that he’s lucky to be alive.
During an event earlier this year the pro bull rider was knocked unconscious when he not once but twice butted heads with a 1,500-pound bull. The result was not only a potential career-ending injury but a life-ending one as well. The 23-year-old sustained numerous injuries including a broken jaw, broken shoulder and a severe head injury.
He was told by doctors that 95 percent of people who sustain that traumatic of a brain injury don’t come out of the coma and the other 5 percent usually have permanent brain damage.
“I just told them I was a little crazy before so this may have made me normal,” he said laughing.
Wimberly can laugh about it now and has said he’s seen the “wreck” on youtube many times — something his loved ones have a hard time doing. Doctors have said it will be at least another year before he can once again compete professionally. But he was allowed to travel to the Big Island last week to take part in a bull riding clinic held at the Park Ranch rodeo grounds. He was joined by veteran pro bull rider Sean Willingham in addition to 25 students who signed up. The free clinic was sponsored by the Paniolo Preservation Society, Parker Ranch Round Up Club and Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“Hawaii has a rich Western lifestyle heritage and paniolo are among the original American cowboys,” PBR President and COO Sean Gleason recently said. “PBR has conducted two successful events in the islands, and we are working to include Hawaiian events as a regular part of our schedule. We are honored to be working with the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Paniolo Preservation Society on this cultural event.”
The students — who ranged in age from junior high to adults — were given pointers from Wimberly and Willingham on the art of bull riding from safety tips to the proper way to land when thrown from the bull. Several of the clinic participants tried their hand on the mechanical bull, which in this case was powered more by elbow grease than electricity. Then, eight students got on the real thing.
“We can teach them the mechanics and correct way to ride but a lot of it is a mental game. We need more cowboys these days — it’s a dying lifestyle. We came here to help some of these younger people get into the paniolo culture,” Wimberly said.
It’s that cowboy lifestyle — in addition to a desire to hone his skills — that drew Jake Huserik to the clinic.
“I wanted to take advantage of this great opportunity,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of schools which charged $300 to $400. So for them to come out and give this free class is great. It’s also great having them give you guidance and when they tell you you’re doing something right, it really boosts your confidence.”
Unlike some who were at the clinic, Huserik is no stranger to rodeo. In fact, he’s competed in bull riding in the past.
“It’s a real adrenaline rush. It’s a feeling like you’ve never felt before. When you have a successful ride you feel like you can do anything — including chewing through one of these metal pipes,” he said with a grin. “I’ve competed in a lot of other sports in my life but with this I get a feeling of accomplishment I’ve never felt in any other.”
Unlike many in the sport, Willingham didn’t grow up with a rodeo or ranching background. In some ways he was self taught. And despite being a pro for the last 10 years, away from the arena, he still doesn’t live the life of a cowboy.
“I don’t own a farm or even a horse,” he said. “When I’m not competing I do other things like hike and play golf.”
Not having that rodeo background is one of the reasons he agreed to participate in the clinic as way to share his knowledge who those who may be in a similar situation.
“This means a lot to me,” the 30-year old said. “When I started, I had to learn everything on my own. So to have people who want me to share my knowledge means a lot to me.”
The sport of rodeo has been around for generations and has grown in popularity. Few would argue that bull riding is the biggest draw. According to the Pro Bull Rider’s website, there are more than 800 cowboys worldwide who hold a PBR membership.
“These cowboys have grown up on ranches and in the inner cities, but it is their determination and will to succeed sets them apart from other professional athletes. After all, these cowboys dare to live their lives 8 seconds at a time,” the site states.
It’s that eight seconds that brings in the crowd.
“It’s all about the danger,” Wimberly said. “It’s such an adrenaline rush for both the spectator and the rider. It gets you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s man versus beast and you can’t control what the bulls will do. No one wants to see anyone get hurt but they don’t want to miss it if they do.”
“These are some of the best athletes in the world,” he said. “People want to see a 160 pound cowboy taking on an 1,800 pound beast. Once they’ve seen it, they fall in love with the sport and can’t get enough of it. I was in love with it the very first time I tried it. It’s the challenge that keeps me going. It’s always different.”
Like Wimberly, Willingham has also had his share of injuries including a broken wrist and ankle and a cracked skull when he was 18. It almost prevented him from competing ever again, just months after getting into the sport.
During his “wreck” in January, Wimberly was wearing a chest protector as well as a helmet — which is not required on the PBR circuit. Despite his injuries, the helmet may have been the one thing that saved his life.
“There’s a lot of things that can make bull riding safer but it’s never going to be a safe sport,” he said. “After my wreck people told me I should quit but I can’t. As a kid this is all I ever wanted to be. I never had anything other than that in my mind and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”