Army bull rider takes 3rd at World Finals
November 16, 2006
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 16, 2006) - When Mike Lee climbs onto the back of a 1,900 pound, ornery bull with a name like "Hit and Run," he espouses the Army Strong spirit of grit and courage.
One of three Army-sponsored bull riders and the only one to make it to the final rounds of the 2006 Ford Tough Professional Bull Riding World Finals in Las Vegas, Nev., on Nov. 4-5, Lee managed to be bucked from 14th to 3rd place by competition's end.
At 23, Lee has been in the PBR five years. Already he has earned more than $2 million in prize money and is the first to simultaneously capture both the PBR's World Championship title and the Built Ford Tough Finals in 2004.
Lee has never been a Soldier, but a mini boot camp he attended upon selection for the Army team led him to compare the physical and emotional challenges that Soldiers and bull riders face.
"Soldiers are a lot like bull riders. Soldiers have to show courage, they have to control their minds and always be prepared for what their missions are," said Lee, who grew up in Billings, Mont. "I go home and practice, watch my videos, ride horses and do all kinds of things to prepare myself. When I get on a bull and they open that gate, there's no thinking anymore, your mind goes blank and you go into react mode. Soldiers have to do the same."
The Professional Bull Riders, Inc., touts bull riding as the "toughest sport on dirt" and America's fastest growing sport, having more than a 52 percent growth in television viewership since 2002.
The principles of bull riding are deceptively simple. Dressed in chaps, boots, Kevlar vest, hat or helmet, mouthpiece and dulled spurs, the rider climbs into the bucking chute onto the bull's back and slides one gloved hand (usually the glove is taped around the wrist) under the bull rope.
With a ready-to-go signal from the rider, the gate opens and out storms the bull, bucking, turning and twisting. A rider is disqualified if he touches the bull or the rope with his free hand that dances over his head to seek balance and counter the bull's erratic movements.
It's all about staying on for a maximum of eight seconds, but a bull ride is rarely that long.
This is what Lee and his fellow cowboys live for... and, some have died for.
Lee, himself, nearly died for his love of bull riding in 2003. Just 20 at the time, he climbed onto "Chili," a 1,700 pounder and out the chute they came. Six seconds later, the bull threw him, but in the course of the toss, beast and beast rider went head-to-head. With adrenaline pumping, Lee was able to run to safety, then he was out cold.
Even though he wears a full-faced helmet that resembles those worn by lacrosse players, the head-to-head collision resulted in Lee suffering a fractured skull. He underwent brain surgery that put him out of competition for more than four months.
"My dad bought me a helmet when I was 15," Lee laughs. "He told me to wear it because he didn't want to buy me any teeth because they were expensive... but that helmet saved my life."
After recovering, Lee questioned whether he should continue working in what has been referred to as one of the most dangerous eight seconds in sports. There was hardly a doubt - less than a year later he had his first two championships.
"Seventy percent of bull riding is mental," he said. "You can have defeat before you even get on your bull, so the decision I had to make was whether I loved this sport enough to continue. When you get on a bull, you don't wanna have no doubts in your mind that this is what you wanna do, but if you have a little, well, you turn it into a good thought.
"Bull riding makes me feel alive, especially when I make a really good bull ride," Lee said.
When Lee was selected as one of the three bull riders to represent the Army team, he knew he'd fit right in, just as the new Army Strong campaign fits in with his work and life ethic.
"Army Strong means heart, desire, being prepared and doing my job," Lee said. "It has a big impact on us and is a big inspiration for me. It means you get up off an injury or after a buck-off, you ride again and just never quit."