Today marks the first day of the Calgary Stampede Rodeo, and contestants have been thinking about it for a long time already. If they’ve been before, they remember the run into the arena, or the fly-in over the grandstand. There’s the view from the back of the chutes to the big Grandstand across the way. There’s the adrenaline pumping in the preparations.

For any Stampede newcomer, there’s the nervous anticipation of dream meeting reality. For all, there’s the wondering: What would it feel like to be up on that stage? What could I do with $100,000? And those thoughts have been circulating and pulsing during long, overnight drives as they try to keep awake, getting to the next rodeo. They’re the same feelings that first began last winter, when they focused on earning a spot for Calgary in July at their season-end playoffs.

For competitors, the Stampede comes at a mid-point in what can be a long, grueling season. It’s a chance to breathe – a working holiday, so to speak. They’ve just come through the craziness of what’s known as the ‘Cowboy Christmas’ rodeo run, where they crisscross North America, driving, flying in small planes, arranging rides with other contestants, coordinating horse trailers – all in an effort to get some money gathered up during the rich and busy time of the season.

Now, for four days, they can actually sleep in a bed instead of a truck and have a real meal. Maybe even see family. They’re treated like kings and queens, and they’ll all tell you there’s nowhere better to be in mid-July than in Calgary. Rain or shine. Want to hear what they’ve been thinking?

Cory Solomon tie-down roping

Cory Solomon knows what it’s like to rise to the occasion, to make pressure his friend, and tie-down rope like a winner. Just one year ago the Texas speedster wrapped up his second Calgary Stampede championship in the tie-down roping in the blink of an eye; 6.7 seconds to be exact.

“It’s probably my absolute favourite rodeo,” he asserts. “I would almost put it in front of the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). It’s not as long. It’s a dream to go to the NFR but I don’t know – the Calgary Stampede… I try to explain it to people back home and I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just a rodeo that gets you going. I love that rodeo. I brought a horse up last year for the first time and won it on her. She’s actually making the trip up here just for Calgary. That rodeo – it just does something. The way it’s set up, you don’t have to have the best calf to win. All of them are pretty even. The start is so fast. None of my family had ever rodeoed at this level. I showed up there for the first time in 2012 and won the first round and ended up winning the whole deal. It was like ‘how can it get better?’ Calgary Stampede has just been one of those rodeos for me, so I’m looking forward to getting back.”

With his family’s ranch just down the road in Cochrane, Straws Milan considers Calgary his hometown rodeo. And in 2011, he brought the house down, when he outmuscled a speeding steer, and won it all.

Work in the movie industry had kept Milan off the competition trail fulltime last season and over the winter, but there’s a different game plan at play now. He’s back in the rodeo business, preparing for returning to the Calgary Stampede.

“Movie work hasn’t been real busy right now, so I’m entered up hard,” explained Milan. “Being qualified for Calgary, I don’t want to come in there not on my game. I want to be going to all the big PRCA shows as well. When you get to Calgary you’re going against the best guys, and they’re all at those big rodeos so you might as well be going head to head with the best, so you’re ready for Calgary. You can’t go into Calgary not competitive, that’s for sure, because you can make yourself look like a fool in a hurry!”

Milan earned his return ticket to Calgary when he finished third in Canada after last year’s Canadian Finals Rodeo. So he’s been pondering the possibilities since November. “I haven’t got to go the last two years, but when you get that invitation to Calgary, that’s everything. It’s the one spot in the summer where you can go and win $20-30,000, and nobody even knows you were there!

Milan is happy to have big brother Tanner there competing, while his other brother Baillie will be hazing.

The other brothers competing at this year’s Calgary Stampede will also be in the steer wrestling. Canadian favorites Curtis and Cody Cassidy are in Pool A, with the Milans up in Pool B.

Zeke Thurston saddle bronc riding

After incredible back to back wins at Calgary in the saddle bronc riding, Big Valley’s Zeke Thurston fielded plenty of questions last year about the possibility of a three-peat. Lo and behold, the talented cowboy defied logic and did just that, riding away with his third oversized cheque for $100,000 after an awesome 92 point ride on Get Smart.

“The last two years I won it, honestly, when I got off my horse I couldn’t hear the score because the crowd was so loud. It’s crazy, like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It’s incredible. I honestly just love competing here. It’s my favorite rodeo,” insists Thurston. “Win, lose or draw – you can’t have a bad time in Calgary. They treat you awesome and I’m pretty excited for it.”

So now, cue the inquiries about the potential for an unprecedented four titles in a row.

“You’ve got to ride a lot of broncs before that happens! There’s a lot of things out of my control. They said that last year – oh, three-peat and everything. Shoot, it happened,” he shrugged.

“All you need is a chance, and it could happen,” he smiled.

By the way, Thurston will celebrate his 24 birthday this year on Championship Sunday at the Stampede.

Richmond Champion riding bareback

Richmond Champion had a deja-vu moment as part of his pre-Stampede routine. A year ago, he nodded his head for the very first time on the C5 powerhouse known simply as Virgil. The mighty grey gave the Texas millionaire everything he could handle and then some. But Champion prevailed and eight seconds and 90.5 points later, he had a big cheque and bronze in his hands.

Fast forward to 2018, just a few days ago, when Champion and his  traveling partners Jake Vold and Caleb Bennett all rode their way to the Showdown round of the Ponoka Stampede. And who did he meet again? You guessed it. Virgil, now the World Bareback Horse of the Year.

This time the combination generated 91.25 points, and Champion’s first Ponoka title, plus almost $13,000.

“Yea, he’s done me OK,” chuckled Champion, in the understatement of the year. “I’d like to have him every day, that’s for sure. It’s like he ate every other cool bucking horse and stole all their powers, and just put it all into one. There is no other horse like him. You can’t describe it.”

Sometimes the best preparation for winning … is winning. And Champion also won Williams Lake on the weekend. But there was no time to savor the victories, since the talented trio needed to hop in the truck and do some more riding before they turn up in Calgary.

“We added it up, we’re on twelve days in a row, fifteen head of bucking horses in twelve days. That’s all the way through our first pool at Calgary.”

The plan is to earn enough in Pool A to get the bye to Championship Sunday.

“That’ll be all of our goals. Travelling with Jake and Caleb, you can’t help but want to win and ride good, especially when you know if you don’t, they’re gonna win. We’re looking forward to, hopefully, a same situation at Calgary.”

Champion is busy putting his earnings into savings now, to get ready for his upcoming nuptials to Canadian Olympic figure skater Paige Lawrence, daughter of stock contractor Jim Lawrence. The two will be married in Saskatchewan next May.

For bull rider Trey Benton III, getting back to Calgary this year is an opportunity to correct the score.

“I really want to redeem myself because in 2015, I’d come off two knee surgeries six weeks apart. I didn’t quite show ‘em my worth,” contends the Texan who was reserve world champion in 2017.

“I’m wanting to make an impact there this year. I know what I can do. So now I’ve just got to show them.”

The 2017 Calgary Stampede Rodeo Champs!

There’s a John Wayne quote Diane Skocdopole posted on her social media account this week: Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway. There’s no doubt the Big Valley Mom, rancher and barrel racer has had her very first Calgary Stampede appearance on the mind a lot lately – #bebrave. She and her good barrel horse Sonic, who is also adept  heading, heeling, roping or chasing cattle, will try their hand at this new big challenge. But considering last year she was able to win rookie of the year honors, qualify for her first CFR and earn her way into Calgary, Skocdopole shouldn’t have anything to worry about. And if she needs any extra inspiration, her son Coy can provide that. He and his team roping partner Clay McNichol are just getting back from South Dakota, where they were reserve champions at the National Junior High Finals Rodeo.