ST. LOUIS ― It’s been 10 years since Mike Lee won a world title.
It’s been equally long since he accomplished the largest swing in points – 4,500 to be exact – at the World Finals and not until this year has there been a comeback story even remotely comparable to Lee’s feat.
In 2004, Lee became the first and only rider in PBR history to win both the world title and Finals average until Renato Nunes did the same in 2010.
“All I heard were people whispering, ‘Oh, Mike has a chance,’” Lee recalled. “I had no idea, nor did I care, nor did I really listen. If I remember right, I stayed in the bullfighter’s locker room all weekend long and everybody was looking for me, but they couldn’t find me.”
Lee is currently ranked first in the world for the second time this season.
However, the 30-year-old is quick to note that it’s too early in the season – they’ve completed seven of 26 Built Ford Tough Series events – to worry about where exactly he’s ranked. However, as much as, yes, it matters to him, he added, it’s not in his hands.
The outcome is in God’s hands.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” said Lee, “I’m not thinking about any of that to be honest with you. I’m just thinking about one every bull and one moment at a time. I’m trying to enjoy what God gave me. Like, when I was a kid I used to love the smell of the rosin burning and the bull’s poop and the smell of the bull’s hair and the sweat and that’s what I’m trying to get back into. I love riding bulls and you (have) to get back into the old cowboy experience when you’re a kid and just wanted to be a cowboy as much as my dad was. He was tough and he was not scared. When the time came he took his fear and turned it into something that was—freedom. That’s what I want man.”
Like so many other top bull riders who grew up in a family of ranchers and cowboys, fate played as much of a role in his becoming a bull rider as being born in Montana and then raised in Texas.
Lee was born in Billings, where his extended family owns a ranch that’s been in the Lee family for three generations. He lived there until he was 4 years old.
His grandmother still lives there and two uncles run the ranch along with several cousins, and while he’s able to visit regularly – namely every year when the Built Ford Tough Series makes its way to town for a three-day event at the Rimrock Auto Arena – he doesn’t remember much from his time living there other than one particular mischievous occasion.
“The only thing I remember is driving my brother’s car off a ravine,” Lee said.
Lee was four and clad only in a diaper when he climbed inside, disengaged the emergency brake and rolled the car down a seven or eight-foot embankment. He also clearly remembers the car coming to a rest straight up and down on its front bumper.
By the time his family realized what happened he was already out and pulling on the back bumper to no avail.
“My Care Bear, at the time, told me to do it, is what I told everybody else,” he said laughing. “We rolled down a pretty good steep ditch. I think we probably totaled that car.”
Trouble was common occurrence for the curious youngster, who was only trying to help.
As a 4-year-old, Lee oftentimes got himself in trouble for turning up missing. He’d ride along when they hauled cattle to town and invariably he’d turn up missing only to be found “inside the trailer trying to clean out all the poop or something.”
He added, “I was always disappearing, I guess.”
Lee’s parents and his siblings eventually moved to Paradise, Texas, before settling in the Decatur area, where he still lives today.
His oldest brother wanted to ride bulls, but, according to Lee, their father wouldn’t let him “because there was no money back in the ’80s,” so he went to college and started shoeing horses for a living.
Their father trains reining and cutting horses and their mother is an editor for a quarter horse magazine based in Fort Worth.
Lee’s own career came about when he was 10.
He and his father, along with an older sister and another of his brothers, spent the summer on a ranch in Wyoming. There they doctored cows, raised hay and irrigated the land. He and Nate, two years his senior, would ride the cows after Stacy would let them out of the doctoring chute.
“A lot of times they would run to the fence and we’d have to doctor them again,” Lee recalled. “I was getting in trouble for that too, so they took me to a buckout to try and scare it out of me.”
Nate got bored seven seconds into his first ride and jumped off shy of the whistle or he would have surely won the small, local jackpot steer riding event.
Lee, on the other hand, didn’t come close to riding his first steer.
He got flipped right over the frontend, but as anyone who knows him now could only imagine, he picked himself up and said, “That was pretty wild.”
Lee didn’t have an opportunity as a 10-year-old to ride steers very often, but a year later – back in Texas – he started competing regularly at amateur events and in a matter of 10 years was the No. 1 ranked professional bull rider in the entire world. While his oldest brother had foregone a career because the sport lacked any substantial payouts, the youngest of the Lee children was a millionaire.
Lee is currently sixth on the PBR’s list of all-time career money earners with over $3.3 million.
“God’s gotten me this far and without Him I wouldn’t be here,” Lee said. “I want to thank Him and what he did for us on the cross.”
The 13-year pro has qualified for the World Finals the past 12 years and was only 21 years old when he won the title in his third season on the Built Ford Tough Series.
He’s finished in the Top 10 of the world standings six times, and he is one of only four riders in the 20-year history of the PBR with more than 800 outs (880) and one of only two with 400 qualified rides (441). Perhaps, more impressive is his career riding percentage of 50.11 percent, which is seventh-best on a list of riders with at least 400 career outs at the BFTS.
In other words, he’s been a consummate among the top riders and only once (2005) has he missed substantial time on the BFTS, and even then, despite competing in only nine BFTS events that season, he still qualified for the World Finals.
In addition to the BFTS, Lee has amassed double-figure wins at Touring Pro Division events, won the Calgary Stampede in 2008 and represented the United States at the 2010 World Cup.
“I do like what I do, but, to be honest with you, there are times you don’t feel like getting on,” the 30-year-old said. “You’re sore, but then they run that bull in and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this kind of sounds like a good idea now. This sounds pretty fun.’
“You’re like, ‘Heck, this is cool.’”
As much as he’s a cowboy, he’s a professional athlete and works tirelessly to condition himself.
Lee said he used to train harder in the gym than he does now, but he felt his upper body and chest getting too big, so he’s made a conscious effort to alter his routine to include sprints, more stretches to stay flexible and lots of reps to keep his heart rate up. He focuses a lot of his training on his fast-twitch muscles.
He compared bull riding to running four or five sprints across a football field.
“I’m trying to stay light on my feet,” Lee said. “I’m going to ride for as long as my body holds up. I think my body is going to hold up. I think I stay in good enough shape. I’m just trying to get better and, I think, I’m actually getting better the older I get. So it’s just a matter of time before things start to come together. Consistency is what I need to get back and a lot of that is just in my head.”
Like so many other greats, Lee agrees that success is about winning the mental game.
Personally, he feels he needs to quit thinking too much, quit changing things, quit doubting his ability and most of all quit listening to other people “and just believe in what I know and believe in what God’s given me. It’s pretty simple after that.”
One thing he can’t afford to change is the way he nods for the gate, which is more like a bobble than a nod. It’s something he worked on his with father.
“The reason I do that is to make my body loose,” Lee explained. “If my body is in motion it seems like it’s easier for me to get tapped off on (those) bulls. If I’m holding my breath and tight it seems like they beat me. That first jump for me is the most important.”
He also elaborated on the mental approach.
“You have to be very strong-minded to be here, or to be a professional athlete anywhere—NFL, anything like that,” Lee said. “There’s always people that are going to say something and you got to focus on what you (have) and go from there."
Lee concluded, “I’m not the kind of guy that wants to be some kind of legend or anything like that. I just want to be known as a great bull rider and I really love what I do, so I want to be good at it.”
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC.
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