Battling age ain’t for the faint. But Clay O’Brien Cooper isn’t worried about it.
I still have a lot of time left if the desire stays with me. As long as I keep working at being at the top of my game I think I’ll be fine. It all comes down to work ethic, and the older guys have to work at it harder than the younger guys do. But it’s still achievable and possible if I want it bad enough.
Originally published in Spin To Win in 2004.
If you looked at the graph from when I started competing as a kid in the early ’70s, team roping has gone straight up. To me, in all aspects it’s never really leveled off.When I first started competing, there wasn’t any number system. It was all just open ropings. It got popular enough that if the good guys hung around anywhere very long they got blackballed and couldn’t rope. So those guys went to the rodeos. With the USTRC and number systems, roping just exploded and has grown to where it is now.
There are a few of us open ropers who came from the era way back when. We roped because we loved it. We knew we weren’t going to get rich doing it, but had such a passion that we were determined to make it work, whatever it took. In fact, we still are.
Now you have guys from that era-guys like me, Jake (Barnes), Allen (Bach), Mike Beers, Tee Woolman, Denny Watkins, J.D. (Yates), Bobby (Harris) and David Motes, who are still here and competing at the top of their game. The money’s gotten to where you can make a good living roping if you have a good year. It’s awesome financially compared to the way it used to be, especially with endorsements and schools. There are a group of us who have basically just hung around until it got good.
When I got to be 34 or 35 years old I’d finally reached the point where I was in the “older” group. People look at you differently when you get there. You’ve been doing it a long time, so many more people are roping good and the competition’s getting better all the time. At about 35, I started changing the way I was thinking about myself. I started feeling older, and wondering what that meant to me as a competitor. From that point to now, which has been 7 years, that’s one of the things I’ve battled in my thought life.
Physically, I don’t feel any different than I did at 35. It’s just a mental deal. As far as mental ability, horsemanship and competition, Leo (Camarillo) was always somebody I admired for his ability in the arena. Every time I’ve ever been at a place where he’s competing, I watch him. Walt Woodard’s another guy who’s older than me that I’ve always looked up to. When I watch those guys rope, to this day, they have the ability they had when I watched them as a kid. That has been a real encouragement to me. I feel like Leo Camarillo or Walt Woodard-if they have the desire to want to make the National Finals-can still do it. If they can get by the mental hurdles, physically and reactionwise I still think they can do it.
People who continue to succeed keep on going like the Energizer bunny. They don’t give in to negative thinking, and don’t make excuses. They find a way to make it work because to them it’s not too much of a burden to bear.
There are advantages of being older in every aspect of life, unless you’re in a sport where you need amazing speed or strength. In team roping, your horse is your speed, strength and agility. If you keep studying the game, you learn how to make that horse work better for you so your physical attributes get better with age. It doesn’t take a lot of physical ability to deliver a good loop once it’s built into a subconscious reaction
Golf is another sport that’s comparable to team roping. You see a lot of 40-something guys having a lot of success swinging a club, just like you see a lot of 40-something guys having a lot of success swinging a rope. The older guys have an advantage because they’ve been there 100 times. Age and experience are huge advantages in so
many aspects of life.
I see guys like Kory Koontz, Daniel Green, Charles Pogue, Steve Purcella and Britt Bockius who are in the middle age bracket. They just keep getting better at what they do. They’re not going anywhere for a long time. I could see Rich Skelton doing what he does until he’s 70 years old. He’s perfected his style. He could do it from now on, if he wants to. Hopefully, they’ll be able to say the same about me when it’s all said and done.
We’ve lost some guys we used to rodeo with. They did it as long as they possibly could, but the hardship of travel and time away from their families sent them home. There are just a certain few of us who’ve kept working at it. The money getting better has kept us charging ahead. It’s still not an easy life, but it’s our life.
A lot of people look at us and think, “Boy, I wish I could do what you do.” If they were a fly on the wall and followed us around year after year they’d realize that rodeo is a hard job. It’s 24-7, year-round, and if you quit working, preparing, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, the next guy is going to beat you because mistakes beat you. We don’t get any time off, and there are no guaranteed paychecks. But we love to rope.