With the Olympics underway in Beijing, members of the United States' World Cup PBR team were feeling more than a little patriotic at the international bull riding competition.
Sporting red, white and blue jerseys over the top of new, slimmer protective vests, the U.S. team, captained by J.W. Hart and made up of riders Justin McBride, J.B. Mauney, L.J Jenkins, Kody Lostroh and Sean Willingham, headed to Chihuahua, Mexico, with only one goal in mind — bringing the title of world's best bull riders back to the States.
"I ain't never competed in the Olympics," said Hart. "I don't know what it's like to go jump off a high dive for your country, but I know what it's like to go captain a team that's riding for your country."
In the end, the U.S. team did stand atop the podium at the Manuel Bernardo Aguirre Gymnasium. With a score of 878 points over four rounds, Team USA walked away with $100,000 in prize money.
Reminiscent of the U.S. men's 4x100 medley relay team's come-from-behind win over France in the 2008 swimming competition, the United States bull riding squad was forced to fight their way back from a first-day deficit. With the competition remaining close until the final round, Team U.S.A. pulled out the win over Canada, who finished in second with 773.25 total points. After a disappointing third-place finish in 2007, the U.S. had finally re-asserted their bull riding dominance.
"We kind of had a chip on our shoulder going down there," said J.W. Hart, who served as the team captain but elected not to ride in the event.
"I think [losing] kind of embarrassed most American bull riders…I know I was pretty embarrassed, and when they (the PBR Board of Directors) elected me to be the captain of the team this year, I told 'em I would damn sure do my best to bring a title back to the States."
Going into the final day, Team U.S.A. was one full score behind Team Canada and feeling the weight of expectations on their shoulders. But they were able to rely on 2007 World Champion Justin McBride, the cornerstone of the talented squad, to make up the difference.
"I put the team together around him," said Hart. "I told him he was going to be the guy that got all the hardest bulls that I didn't think anyone else could stay on. And of course, he was just happy as hell about that because that's his mentality, he wants to get on the rankest ones anyway."
"So all the pressure was really riding on him."
If the pressure affected McBride, it didn't show. He covered the last bull of the third round to give the U.S. a slight advantage going into the final round, where Team Canada faced what was probably the rankest draw of the five teams competing. When the dirt from the floor of the arena had settled, it was the stars and stripes who claimed the victory by more than 100 points.
"The only thing we focused on in that last round was making the whistle and letting the judges work out who the winner was," said Hart.
"I just picked the best five guys America had to offer, and they went down there and rode like the champions they are and brought the title back to where it's supposed to be."
Team Brazil, widely viewed as Team U.S.A.'s biggest competition and led by retiring legend Adriano Moraes, finished in a disappointing third place with 773 points, followed by Team Mexico in fourth with 497.25 points and Team Australia in fifth with 262.5 points.
But for the U.S. squad it wasn't the final score that mattered — it was the opportunity to raise the flag of their country on the world stage.
And, as Hart put it, "The feeling that you get is just unbelievable."