Vexil Brand Athlete Highlight: Derek Kolbaba
Welcome to the second article in our new Vexil Brand Highlight Series. The first article we published was on Vexil Brand founder, Shawn Wiese, and his journey through the western industry and entrepreneurship, you can check that out here! This week, I was able to sit down with Professional Bull Rider, Derek Kolbaba, and get some insights on his journey and career up to this point.
CLN: To start us off, can you tell me a little bit more about your background, family, and how you started getting involved in riding bulls professionally?
Derek: I’m originally from Joseph, Oregon, which is in the northeast part of the state. That’s where all my family lives and that’s always been home until I was about 10 years old, my mom packed us up and moved us to Walla Walla, Washington where I live now. At the time, I didn’t really think it was the best idea but looking back, it was probably the best thing for us and for me, being able to rodeo out of a little more of a central location. If you know anything about Joseph, Oregon it’s about two hours from anything. It was definitely a good move looking back.
My dad rode bulls in the ’90s in the PRCA, my great grandfather was a stock back in the early days of rodeo and took bulls and horses to the very first NFR. Rodeo has always been a part of my life, I grew up riding horses and playing rodeo. All I ever wanted to do was be a bull rider. From there I just kind of worked my way up from riding sheep to calves, then junior bulls to the big bulls. I like to say that I was pretty lucky that I had the family support growing up. My dad helped me with the fundamentals and basics of bull riding at a young age which took away that hard learning curve of “well, I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing, I’m just putting my hand in the rope and hoping for the best”, which is what a lot of people have to do starting out. I was really fortunate to have that guidance and then also my mom and grandparents were always ready to take me to a junior rodeo. I eventually bugged my granddad enough to build a bucking chute so we could buck steers and practice. I definitely had family support from a young age and a lot of that shows today.
CLN: Looking back, what was a truly defining moment for you when first started seriously competing in bull riding?
Derek: A changing moment in my young career, the best thing that could have happened to me, which it’s a weird thing to say, but when I was 15 I broke my leg in a practice pen, right before the high school finals. Everything was really starting to click for me and I had all these big plans to go to bigger bull ridings and try n’ hang with the big boys for the first time that summer. Once I broke my leg, it made me sit out, I sat out for six months and had to have 4-5 surgeries to fix it. It’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me just so the rest of my body could mature and I could grow up a little bit. I was able to come back in better shape, felt better than I did before and things really started escalating after that, I started having bits of success after and falling into my own.
CLN: You are currently sitting 10th in the PBR standings, besides making the eight seconds, do you have any kind of strategy in your head on how you’d like to keep moving up?
Derek: Ya know, it’s one of those things that is huge in bull riding, it’s 90% mental, it’s all in between your ears. The top 30 guys in the world that are there every weekend, every single one of them can ride at the absolute top level. It’s that same handful of guys that show up every weekend and everything is turned on, the switch is on. Being able to keep that mentality and to keep it on for a full season is what it really takes. It’s very easy to show up and just go through the motions and not do your best so for me, it’s showing up each weekend, believing in myself, and enjoying it. You gotta be able to have fun at this, even the six am flights and the all-day of traveling can stray you away from what the actual goal is and what the game plan is for the weekend. You just gotta keep the positive attitude and keep the foot on the gas at the end of the day.
CLN: Along the same lines, bull riding is just as much about your mental game as it is your physical game. How do you keep up on your mental game for your rides?
Derek: One of those hard things that everybody explains is bull riding is 90% in your head and yet, I don’t feel like we really do a job of working on that or even telling the younger generation how to even go about that. For everybody, it’s going to be different, but for me, it’s watching tape of myself riding or the greats doing it back in the day just to keep that mental picture of winning and hitting that whistle. I think that’s a huge part of it, being able to watch yourself or other people be successful and make the eight seconds, it’s something you have to have instilled in your brain, is getting the job done. It’s really about engraving it in your brain, that no matter what animal you have drawn that night, or what that bull has done previously, you’re just going to do what you do best and get him rode. It’s a hard thing to do when everything is right there and the lights are the brightest, the money is at the highest, and the pressure is on, that’s when you really have to rise above and it’s what separates the good guys from the great ones.
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CLN: Who are some of the guys that you really enjoy watching or look up to when it comes to bull riding?
For me, there were a handful of guys back in the late 90s and early 2000s that I really liked to watch; Justin McBride, Chris Shivers, JB Mauney, and also Shane Proctor. One thing that Shane actually told me when I went to one of his schools back in the 2000s is that what works for him, isn’t going to work for everybody. If you can take one little thing from JB Mauney, one thing from Justin, and make it into your own form, that’s the direction you should go. Someone that is six foot isn’t going to ride the same as someone who is 5’2 and then probably won’t be able to mimic what Chris Shivers did, but he can dang sure follow someone’s style like Cody Teel. It’s just taking little things from each of the greats and trying to make it into your own. For me, I love the way that Justin McBride kept it simple and really focused on the basics, then you had Chris Shivers who could make an 85 point bull into a 91 point bull just with his style.
CLN: What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into bull riding or someone trying to get to the PBR?
Derek: It’s hard to be able to just tell anyone, “Eh yeah, just go find yourself a pen of bulls to start getting on” because not everyone has that available to them. I would say go to a school under someone that has some notoriety, that someone you’re going to learn from and learn the correct way. Then after you get through that, it is about finding a place to get on a lot of bulls because one thing about it, is that you can think about it, you can be the strongest guy that works out every single day, and you’ve been watching film for the last two years, but at the end of the day, you need to be getting on a lot of bulls and getting that repetition to where it is a reaction every time you nod your head, getting out of your own way and getting your body to just react. That’s where you need to be at any level. From the moment you start thinking about what you need to do on the back of the bull, you’re going to be in the dirt. It’s getting your body to react and then just being confident.
CLN: It’s every bull rider’s dream to be a World Champion, and you’ve come really close before, I’m sure that’s still in your plan correct?
Derek: Absolutely, I think that if you aren’t shooting for a World Title every single year, you may as well not even be doing it, I guess. That’s one thing that I think is instilled in every bull rider, is that they want to win. For me, that’s my goal, to be the best. Coming up short that year in 2017 was kind of a heartbreaker but it was one of those things that I had to learn from and move on. I know that if I keep busting my butt like I do and stay out of my own way, I think everything will work out and I can achieve that goal.
CLN: To wrap us up, can you dive a little bit deeper on what has it meant to have Shawn with XD Sports on your side as an agent and what that’s allowed you to do in your career?
Derek: It all came about when I was about 15 at an open bull riding that he and some partners had bulls at. He came up to me and he said “Hey, I’m an agent and work with PBR riders and just wanted to let you know that if whenever you decide to go to the PBR that I would love to be able to work with you and help you.” I told him I was 15 and he was a bit shocked. At the time, I didn’t even know bull riders had agents. A few years later, everything started coming together and we started having some success at an early age and that’s where it really clicked for me that having an agent like Shawn there to take care of things is great because next thing you know, you have some big brands knocking your door down and you just don’t even know where to start. They are like “we will give you some jeans and some boots” and you think that’s pretty good, but realistically, that’s not good. So having someone there that can have your best interest in hand and be able to actually know what you’re worth is great. It’s hard for us as bull riders and being brought up in that cowboy way of you don’t really tell anybody how good you are, you just go out and do it so to put a price on yourself makes it really difficult. Whereas Shawn knows what you’re with and it takes a lot of stress out of my day-to-day. The last thing I need to be doing is hunting down sponsors, I need to be focusing on being the best bull rider I can be and do what I do best, and let him do what he does best. It’s definitely a weight lifted off of my shoulders and I’m pretty lucky to have him be a part of this journey.
CLN: I interviewed Shawn previously about what creating the Vexil Brand meant to him and I’m curious to know what makes you want to be a part of that with him and help grow his brand and overall help grow the western industry?
Derek: Growing the brand and growing the western industry is something that needs to happen. People always say that sooner or later that cowboys are going to be a long forgotten thing. So Shawn and everybody at Vexil believes in being a cowboy, which is what the brand is about and then taking the values of the cowboy way, being courageous, being strong, and standing up for what you believe in. I think that’s bigger than any other t-shirt or hat, it stands for a lot more than just that. So for me, that makes it worth something more. It’s nice to be partners with someone that has the same mindset and have the same vision as you do, so it’s really something you can get behind.
VEXIL is a brand built on the cowboy and cowgirl lifestyle. Some were born into it and others were just drawn to it but regardless of what lead us to this life, it is now forever branded upon our souls. From the sound of creaking leather as we climb into our saddles to the banging of metal as bulls and horses are loaded in the chutes, the small details of this life become the spark that fuels our passion. It’s really sad that the majority of this world’s population will never get to see what we see or know what we know. Outsiders will never understand our lives but that really doesn’t concern us. We will keep being who we are because that is what we know and all we care to know. We will be strong, we will be courageous, we will BE COWBOYS.
XD Sports is an agency that represents Professional Bull Riders and was founded in 2001 by former Professional Bull Rider Shawn Wiese. Shawn’s love for the sport of Professional Bull Riding and his desire to see these athletes earn more was the fuel that brought XD Sports to life. In 2003 Attorney Brad Bensinger became a partner in XD Sports. His knowledge of contract negotiations combined with a love for the sport made Brad and Shawn a perfect match.
The rapid growth of the Professional Bull Riders Association (PBR) has turned these everyday cowboys into national sports stars. The PBR’s national and most recently global exposure has created sponsorship and endorsement opportunities for these courageous athletes. XD Sports seeks out these sponsorship and endorsement opportunities for their athletes as well as managing all of their public relations. XD Sports takes pride in their knowledge of the sport of Professional Bull Riding and their desire to look out for their athlete’s best interest.