It was standing-room only at the Big Valley Inn on Tuesday, Dec. 27 as friends, family and community came together to welcome home local rodeo sensation and world champion, Zeke Thurston.
Twenty-two-year-old Thurston, returning home from Las Vegas, Nev., had won the saddle bronc buckle and world championship at the National Final Rodeo, the largest rodeo competition in the world and the final competition of the 2016 rodeo season.
The Dec. 10 victory, after 10 days of rides, marked the end of a wild year for Thurston, who brought in roughly $265,500 in winnings this season between the various rodeos in which he competed. He also managed to lock down both the world and averages titles in saddle bronc.
“It’s something that I worked for every day,” he said. “It’s a pretty big feat to qualify for the NFR. It’s not easy to get there, and to go my second year in a row was something special.”
Thurston entered the NFR competition’s final days in fourth place.
“I knew I had a shot at the world title, but I knew things had to go well,” he said. “I rode well all week, I felt. I got bucked off one day. At the end of the week, though, it all worked out.”
It’s the first time since 2002 that a rider calling Canada his home has brought home the saddle bronc title, which went to Glen O’Neill. However, O’Neill was originally from Australia, so many Canadians consider the last Canadian to take the title Mel Coleman, who competed at the NFR nine times. His win in bronc riding in the 1970s was the last time a Canadian held the buckle until now.
“It’s kinda cool,” he said. “There’s been a lot of Canadians in the last couple years to go to the finals.”
For Thurston, it’s a big honour, and the fulfilment of almost two decades of rodeo training and competition, and a family-wide love of rodeo.
“It was something that was always there,” Thurston said. “I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. My dad rodeo’d, had a very successful career. Everyone in my family rodeo’d – rodeo, rodeo, rodeo.”
Thurston had big cowboy boots to fill, as dad Skeeter Thurston himself qualified for the NFR five times in saddle bronc riding, as well as five times at the Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR) before hanging up his hat.
The dedication to the rodeo craft paid off in more than just rodeo titles and winnings, travel experience and world-wide rodeo fame, but also in community pride.
The Big Valley Inn hosted the second homecoming celebration for Thurston, the first taking place days earlier in Calgary.
“It’s been great,” Thurston said. “There’s lots of positive energy, and the community has been behind me. There’s lots of nice words and comments from people who have been very great.”
He spent much of the night mingling and signing autographs, going through a thumb-thick stack of photos before the night was through, and posing for pictures with life-long supporters from the community, both the youngest and eldest.
“It was a great turn-out,” Thurston said of the Big Valley celebration. “To know that people in the community support me, and take pride in my success, means a lot.”
There’s no rest for Thurston, though. While the regular rodeo season finished in October, leaving the last three months of 2016 for final rodeo competitions, the 2017 season has already started and Thurston’s back in the saddle.
“There’s no stopping,” he concluded. “I’ve got a long career ahead.”