Tradition is a big thing for the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and there's another special tradition that has accompanied the popular rodeo for more than three decades. For the past 32 years, PRCA cowboys have made the trip to Steamboat Springs, Colo., from Denver for the Cowboy Downhill, an annual skiing competition that provides good friendly competition and lots of laughs.
It's easy to understand how the cowboys are able to strap themselves onto some of the world's toughest and strongest animals without regard for life or limb as you watch them come screaming down the mountain in varying forms and shapes.
For the second straight year and the third time in four years, no cowboy was faster than Canada's Kyle Bowers. Bowers, who also won the event in 2005 and 2003, completed the dual slalom race in 31.50 seconds to yet again claim bragging rights ahead of almost 60 Downhill contestants.
In the dual slalom, cowboys race down the hill in pairs and have to navigate their way between several gates before surviving a four-foot jump midway through the run. Then the real fun begins.
Racers must then bring themselves to a quick stop, lasso a person, saddle a horse and then sprint across the finish line. Bowers (Alberta, Canada) finished ahead of Andy Kurtz of Steamboat Springs, who stopped the clock at 32.28 seconds, to once again etch his name on the bronze trophy.
The Cowboy Downhill is one of the cowboys' favorite competitions all year.
"Tomorrow, when I leave this hill, I'm going to look forward to this until I get here next year," Bowers said. "This is one of the best events all year long. It gets our minds off rodeo a little bit, but we get to hang out with all of our buddies from rodeo at the same time. We look forward to this all the time, and it's a blast."
Dr. Michael Sisk, a saddle bronc rider and orthopedic surgeon who lives in the host city, finished third in the dual slalom with a time of 32.33 seconds, but won the Stampede for the third time in five years. The Stampede is a race like none other, with all competitors sprinting side-by-side to the finish line in a free-for-all dash that is customarily filled with wrecks and cowboys flailing through the snow.
"The whole line is just gravitating down the hill, and you're just like, 'OK, when is this thing going to start?'" Sisk said of the Stampede. "This is a deal where 'on your mark' means go. There's a lot of camaraderie that goes on at the rodeos, but it's nothing like this, where we're just here to have some fun."
Nearly 60 PRCA cowboys competed in this year's Cowboy Downhill, including World Champions Will Lowe and Jeffery Willert and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Charles Sampson. The annual award for "best wreck" went to Willert, who was skiing for just the fourth time. PRCA announcers John Shipley, who lives in Steamboat, and Bob Feist called the action during the event.
The cowboys had a great time during the weekend prior to the event and always love visiting "Ski Town USA."
"Steamboat Springs puts on an excellent show here, and the sponsors just treat us great," Bowers said. "This is the best snow I've seen in the five years I've been coming up here. It was outstanding."
The popular event was created by six-time world champion Larry Mahan and 1964 Olympic men's slalom silver medalist Billy Kidd of Steamboat Springs. Mahan took to the slopes 32 years ago in Steamboat to learn from Kidd, the best in the business and Steamboat's director of skiing. The following year, Mahan brought a group of his buddies from the Denver rodeo to Steamboat Springs for a day on the slopes and the Cowboy Downhill was born.
"It's one of the best events in the world of skiing," Kidd said. "It's great for Steamboat to have it here because Steamboat's an old ranching and cowboy town. A lot of ranchers who come from the valleys and ranches here come out to cheer for the cowboys, who are their heroes. It brings the skiing community together with the ranching community."
Kidd said he, for one, is not surprised the cowboys can become talented skiers.
"I think these guys could be good at anything," Kidd said. "In order to be a good rodeo athlete, you've got to have all the athletic skills and an incredible mindset to risk your life every day the way they do. When you get bucked off a pair of skis, there's no bull there trying to kill you. They go fast, don't think about injuries or consequences and just have fun."
For the past six years, event organizers have inducted an individual who has contributed to the Downhill from its beginning into the Legends and Founders Club. This year, former Denver Broncos Pro Bowl center Larry Kaminski was inducted. He joined a select group that includes Mahan, Kidd, Bob Feist, Charlie Mayfield, Tuff Hedeman and Barb Johnson Shipley.
The event helped raise more than $3,000 for the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, which benefits ProRodeo contestants injured in the arena.