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After injury ends career, cowboy helps NFR peers flex muscles

Updated December 10, 2021 - 5:13 am

I’ve paid my dues

Time after time

I’ve done my sentence

But committed no crime

And bad mistakes

I’ve made a few

I’ve had my share of sand

Kicked in my face

But I’ve come through

And we mean to go on and on and on and on

We are the champions, my friends

And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.

“We Are the Champions” — Freddie Mercury

Rodeo enthusiasts might not recall there once were two cowboys named Champion who had aspirations of becoming one in the National Finals.

Richmond Champion, 29, has qualified for rodeo’s big event seven times. He will begin Friday’s penultimate performance of the NFR 10th in the bareback riding world standings. For those who don’t follow the media guide minutiae, he’s also married to Paige Lawrence, a pairs figure skater for Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Doug Champion, 32, has never made it to the big stage in Las Vegas. Nine years ago, when he was starting to figure out bareback horses, one pinned him against a fence post in Estes Park, Colorado, not far from his adopted hometown of Greeley.

The older Champion’s NFR dream was crushed. He suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a broken back that would require delicate and risky spinal fusion surgery.

His rodeo career was over.

Some guys wear their heart on their sleeve when fate intercedes and ends a lifelong ambition. The doctors in the operating room instead set Doug Champion’s aside on a sanitized metal shelf.

“It was a nine-hour surgery, and the heart surgeon takes all of your organs out and puts them on a table next to you,” he said.

Cowboy yoga

After Doug Champion woke up, he felt re-energized. During the three years he went round and round with orthopedic and neurosurgeons about how best to put him back together, he had become a proponent of CrossFit, a fitness regimen that involves movements performed at high intensity.

He opened a gym, sold it, and then during COVID developed an app and a business (Champion Living Fitness) that allows clients, including 17 NFR competitors, to train under his watchful eye via Zoom conference.

At the Thomas & Mack Center, where Richmond Champion has been scoring 85 points in the arena, Doug has been beneath it in the contestant lounge under the executive offices, providing hands-on therapy to top cowboys such as two-time world all-around champion Stetson Wright and his brother Ryder.

They even do yoga as part of the routine.

“This is something that hasn’t been available in the rodeo world, and I don’t know why,” Doug Champion said of providing a service that finally has brought him to his sport’s biggest stage, or at least to a little cubicle alongside it.

Freddie Mercury could have been talking about pro rodeo when he spoke about no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise. But those truths shouldn’t keep cowboys from fighting — and training — until the end.

Doug Champion foresees a day when a pinch between the cheek and gum will be replaced by spiritual thoughts originating from the lotus position.

“Being a fit athlete hasn’t been a common thing in rodeo,” he said as he oversaw stretching routines and calisthenics in the contestant lounge turned gymnasium before Thursday’s go-round. “It’s been ‘be tough, be a cowboy,’ and that’s it.”

As they finished flexing muscles, a few svelte bareback riders gravitated to the snack table for a carrot or a stalk of celery. Two kegs of beer in the corner sat untapped, but the steer wrestlers were expected in a little while.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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