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Riding by faith

Zane Cook at the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in Las Vegas, Nev. (James Atoa/Everett Collection/Newscom)

Work & Calling

Riding by faith

Despite the dangers, some bull riders and big-wave surfers find a sense of calling in their sport

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif.—The world’s deadliest surf breaks often have names screaming “danger”: Jaws in Maui, Teahupo’o (“sever the head”) in Tahiti, and the shark-infested Dungeons in South Africa are among the Top 10. In the Professional Bull Riders circuit, the names of bovine beasts are no less terrifying: Pearl Harbor, Spotted Demon, and Inferno.

The culture of belt buckles and bull ropes seems worlds apart from that of wetsuits and board leashes, but legendary rides and close encounters with death are realities in both occupations. The two cultures merged when 23-year-old Zane Cook hit a slump in his professional bull riding career and his agent proposed a unique way for the Oklahoma native to gain a fresh perspective: surf lessons in Southern California with former professional surfer Bryan Jennings.

Jennings, now a filmmaker and founder of Walking on Water surf ministry, saw an opportunity both to connect bull riders to big-wave surfers and to make a documentary, Surfers and Cowboys. He invited Cook and two of his bull-riding buddies to Hawaii to spend time with three professional surfers, including 35-year-old Aaron Gold. “They’re both risking their lives to do what they love,” Jennings told me during the March premiere of the film in San Clemente, Calif.

The film’s timing was providential: During a surfing competition at Jaws on Jan. 15, 2016, Gold made the book of Guinness World Records for riding the biggest wave ever paddled into—a jaw-dropping 63 feet from trough to crest. Four months later, he almost died during a wipeout in Fiji, which created opportunities to talk about how God uses life’s challenges—a meaningful message for the struggling, young bull rider.

Critics of both sports say the athletes take unnecessary risks. Big-wave surfers are often pushed 20 to 50 feet underwater and may only have 20 seconds to reorient their bodies, find the surface, and catch their breath before the next wave pummels them. Mix strong currents with coral reefs and rocks, and it’s not surprising that at least seven big-wave surfers have died in the past 25 years.

A similar level of danger lurks in the arenas of the rodeo circuits. A 2011 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine cited 11 fatalities and 16 catastrophic or severe injuries from bull riding between 1989 and 2009. Riders have only eight seconds to showcase their skills, but events can take a deadly turn after the chute opens. Risks include being trampled by a 1,500- to 2,000-pound bull, getting impaled by the bull’s horns, and slamming into arena infrastructure.

Cook speaks of his sense of calling: “When you love to ride bulls as much as I do, you block all that fear out of your mind. You know your purpose and what you want to achieve. … Dreams are scary, but you have to chase them anyways.” Cook was 12 when he told his parents he wanted to ride a bull. His mom said no, but his dad believed a quick trip on the back of a massive wild animal would put an end to his son’s childhood dream. He was wrong, but both parents now support Cook’s passion.

Gavin Shigesato

Aaron Gold rides the wave that got him into Guinness World Records. (Gavin Shigesato)

Gold, a Hawaii native, was also around 12 when he rode a 7-foot wave at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore and decided to become a big-wave surfer: “Despite the risks involved in doing what we do, my family and I know without a doubt that surfing is the gift and calling that God has placed on my life.”

A surfing wipeout in Fiji last year turned life-threatening when Gold was held underwater, was hit hard by a second wave, and blacked out, facedown in the water. A friend pulled him onto a rescue sled and administered CPR. After close to a minute, Gold began breathing again, but didn’t regain consciousness for another two minutes.

“I’ve been in critical situations when time slows down and you pray, wondering if it’s your time and being OK with that. I didn’t get that moment this time,” Gold explained, noting a deep sense of God’s purpose and plan when he regained consciousness.

Both men take precautions. Despite the rodeo world’s slow efforts to adopt helmet requirements, Cook’s father made protective headgear mandatory for his son. Gold rarely surfs without an inflatable vest and consistently trains to improve his lung capacity.

But these precautions offer limited assurances, and Gold’s wife, who was interviewed in the documentary, offered good advice for those related to extreme risk-takers: “If your husband is in a dangerous career path, all you can do is pray.”