BILLINGS -- Clay Tryan says he is a better roper than he was a decade ago.
“I know I’m a smarter roper,” declared the Billings cowboy.
And for almost two decades, Tryan has been one of the best team ropers in the world.
Tryan returns to Las Vegas for his 15th National Finals Rodeo, which begins Dec. 7 at the Thomas and Mack Center.
The three-time world champion enters the NFR ninth in the world standings for team roping headers with $91,383 won for 2017.
“It’s a different feeling, a different mindset coming where we’re at,” said Tryan, who will be roping with Jade Corkill again. Corkill, of Fallon, Nevada, is also ninth for team roping heelers with $91,383.
“I told my wife (Bobbi) if I do well at the NFR this year, it will be one of the funnest ones I’ve had with all the stuff we had to go through.”
Tryan and Corkill missed the NFR in 2016, competing for another rodeo organization. They had won world titles in 2014 and 2015. The decision to rope elsewhere put them behind other PRCA competitors who had the opportunity to compete in their circuit finals, World Champion Challenges and the All-American Finals to count toward their 2017 season.
“With what you missed out, guys have a $14,000 lead on you,” said Tryan, who won his first gold buckle in 2005.
Tryan and Corkill still managed to win team titles at five rodeos in five states, including the Yellowstone River Roundup in August in Billings.
Billings was part of a late summer surge that lifted Tryan and Corkill into the top 15 of the world standings.
“I felt I salvaged it,” Tryan said of his season. “From Great Falls on, we had some good weeks. We roped well the last two months. But when we did make good runs, it didn’t pay a lot. That’s the thing you have to do, you have to do well at the big rodeos.
“I felt we were grinding it out all year.”
They won enough to stay within striking distance of the standings leaders. Tryan trails team roping heading leader Kaleb Driggers by $42,594. A go-round win at Vegas is worth $26,000, while first place in the average is worth another $67,000. Tryan won the average in 2004 and 2014.
And Tryan said ropers have to make sure their NFR strategy remains fluid.
“World titles are won at the NFR, not the regular season,” said Tryan, who has also been second four times in the final world standings. “You always go in with a game plan but you have to be able to adapt round to round.
“You have to rope the rodeo. If you come out fast and win a few rounds, now you’re thinking about the average. But if you miss a few early, now you’re going for the round money.”
While Tryan says he has changed since joining the PRCA in 1998, one thing has remained rock-solid constant.
“Super competitive,” he said of himself. “I hate losing, almost to a fault. More than anything, I have no quit in me.”
This past year, he’s been joined in the practice and competitive arena by older sons Tyler and Braylon.
“We rope every day,” Tryan said proudly. “We’ve been to a few (roping) jackpots and placed at a few. It’s been fun.”
Turning 39 this January has Tryan realizing he is transitioning into the older guard of team ropers.
“I feel I rope better than I did 10 years ago, that’s for sure,” he said. “This is an event you can do for a long time. I’ve adapted to the times. I will keep doing this as long as I’m feeling good.
“As long as I’m at the top of my game, I’ll keep going.”