October 19, 2022 Sturgeon California sends team to International Lineworker’s Rodeo
Competitive rodeo offers lineworkers the chance to sharpen skills, build relationships – for those willing to dedicate the time.
Hundreds and hundreds of poles scattered across an open green field reach up to the piercing blue sky high above Bonner Springs, Kan.
A furor of shouting, cheering, and the dull thwack of climbing spikes piercing wood echoes around the field of the National Agriculture Center & Hall of Fame located 19 miles west of downtown Kansas City. It’s here, once a year, where more than 800 lineworkers and 300 apprentices from around the world gather and compete at the International Lineman’s Rodeo.
This competition is the pinnacle of the lineworker rodeos. Their Super Bowl. But only the best rodeo teams and apprentices qualify for the International. It’s at smaller events around the United States and beyond that teams earn a shot to compete against the very best.
But to think that any rodeo team rolls up to an event and performs at a top level is to completely misunderstand lineworker rodeos altogether. Because in actuality, it’s on hot weekends, early mornings before work, and countless trips up and down practice poles that three people mesh and become a team.
This dedication away from family – and outside of an already demanding profession – is the true story of lineworkers who pursue their passion for rodeo.
“There’s a decent amount of time we commit to doing rodeos. I don’t think a lot of people really know that,” Dan Jameson said, having rodeoed for Sturgeon California since 2018. “Before work, after work, we get a couple hours in to practice, especially if there’s a new scenario coming up. … We try to get in every morning to get a couple climbs to keep our legs going and building plenty of confidence in your ability and keeping the routine going. We’ll come in on Saturdays or Sundays for a half a day on our own time to practice.”
Jameson is the leader climber for the team, which consists of three members: a leader climber, second climber, and groundman. The leader climber goes up first, followed by the second climber, who perform the work on the line designated by the event organizers. The groundman works the hand line to provide tools and material up to the climbers while also offering coaching and eyes from a different perspective.
LISTEN: Steve Lekvold talks rodeo on “The Power Element Podcast”
The rodeos consist of four events, two of which are always a speed climb (up and down the quickest while maintaining control and safety) and a hurt man rescue (safety “saving” a 180-pound dummy stranded at the top of the pole). The other two are “mystery” events, which usually involve traditional lineworker tasks with very specific guidelines that must be followed.
The objective is to complete the tasks safely and efficiently, meeting all rules outlined beforehand. Teams are judged on those two fronts and points are deducted for failing to meet them. The quickest times determine the results for teams that score a perfect 100. Apprentices compete as individuals in their own division and also complete a written exam as part of the competition.
“One of my biggest things is, whether it went good or bad, to tell them good job and get them ready for the next one,” Jameson said. “It doesn’t matter how you did on the first event because you have another one right after…The communication is huge.”
Groundman Steve Lekvold has competed in rodeos since 1994 and has witnessed firsthand how much they’ve grown since the first rodeo in 1984, his first year in the trade. But one thing remains consistent, whether there were 50 teams competing in 1994 or the 280 teams in recent years – teamwork is king.
“Rodeos are helpful in that you learn to work as a team. Teamwork is what we do,” Lekvold said. “Taking a problem, strategizing, and trying to find the safest solution possible, that’s what we do every day in linework and that’s what we do in rodeo. We have to come up with a gameplan that’s safe and efficient to complete a task, then execute it.”
Lekvold and Jameson were introduced to lineworker rodeos in much different ways. Jameson watched his dad and uncle compete on the natural gas side of the competitions when he was as young as 7 years old, whereas Lekvold had “no idea it even existed” until he saw his utility company celebrate the rodeo team for their success at the International in the early 1990s.
What draws them and the rest of the passionate lineworkers to the rodeos is a love of competition and relationships built over the years. If a rodeo’s mission is to help bring the industry together and share safe work procedures and technical skills, then its spirit is a unified will to compete and share the passion of the trade.
“If somebody is looking for a reason not to rodeo, there are a hundred of them out there,” Lekvold said. “Those that rodeo, we’re not looking for a reason not to do it, we’re looking for reasons to do it. But it’s difficult. The trade is very demanding on you and your family. To be good at it, it requires sacrifice. It starts with the support of our yard, leadership, the local union, as well as from of our coworkers.”
Among the hundreds and hundreds of poles clustered in a green field west of Kansas City, you found Jameson and second climber Cole Rae-Plouffe high above the ground as Lekvold supported them from below. They represented Sturgeon California, Local 47, and MYR Group, taking 2nd in the contractor division while finishing 5th in the pole climb event.
But more than that, they and nearly 1,000 other lineworkers from around the world gathered to reignite that sense of pride in what they do. To keep the tradition alive.
“I think it’s really good for all of us to see these really top competitors stay in it and keep the drive,” Jameson said. “That keeps us going and competing and trying to come back with a win.”