By Chuck Browning
I first met Brian Helander at the gym where I was a trainer. He approached me, asking if I would calculate his body fat measurements. When he took his shirt off, I almost fell over. A flight nurse by profession, he was in his early 30s at the time. He was in excellent physical shape and what we referred to as a gym rat. Our paths crossed occasionally but in 1995 he and I independently decided to compete in the International Gay Rodeo Association’s (IGRA) rodeos.
Chuck Browning: Brian, thanks for speaking with me to discuss a subject that I’m sure is very dear to your heart: “Who is rodeo cowboy Brian Helander?”
Brian Helander: Well, that question makes me laugh a bit because I frequently ask myself that same thing. I am someone who has been fortunate enough to have found my way to IGRA at an early age and have been encouraged to grow into the sport by everyone in the association. I started with one event and now compete in eight events.
I’ve used new and old skills to become something I always wanted to be—a reasonably good horseman and a competitive rodeo cowboy. Learning how to rope and ride as an adult, I learned to use my innate skills to do well in some events and then learned completely new skills to compete in other events. Skills like sprinting and good body mechanics help me a lot in rodeo.
Most athletes have an inspiring role model. Did you have one growing up?
Well, most of my inspiring role models were hockey players, so it does not translate well. But I did have some early IGRA cowboy and cowgirl role models that influenced me in so many ways.
We hear about the “cowboy way.” Can you tell us what that term means to you?
For me, the cowboy way is about trying and not giving up. It’s about elevating your skills so you’re winning events by doing your best with the circumstances you face on any particular day in the arena. The cowboy and cowgirl way is also about helping others to do their best.
What draws you to rodeo? What do you get out of it?
I think it’s about staying in shape, learning new skills, sharing knowledge with others. Personally, I get a great sense of accomplishment because it is not all about winning, it’s about TRYING. Yes, winning events is great and I certainly have had my share of wins. But rodeo is a precision sport and from my experience, precision comes from trying, failing, changing, improving, learning and trying again. And collectively, I think we all get a great sense of camaraderie in the sport of rodeo.
When and why did you get involved as a rodeo competitor?
I was never a very athletic young man. But when I watched a rodeo in the 1994-95 timeframe, I thought it was intriguing and symbolic of a new life in Arizona. I wanted to learn to ride a horse but started rodeo in the non-horse events and slowly learned to ride. Now I am a good rider although not the same caliber as so many of the riders that I admire in the IGRA. Someone helped me and I want to help others that want to learn to ride.
Has your participation in IGRA rodeos been only as a competitor?
No, I did a stint in several leadership roles as committee chair(s) executive board, officer, trustee and instructor.
How does one become a competitor at IGRA rodeos?
Come to a rodeo school or to any Friday night rodeo to register and then start with one of our entry level events. Or if you have a horse and already do something on horse- back like barrel racing, come and get started. Take a peek at IGRA.com for more information.
What major goals have you accomplished in rodeo?
My major accomplishments include having great fun for 23 years. I have made wonderful friends all across the USA, Canada and Australia. The high point for me was when IGRA put on a rodeo at the Gay Games in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. The whole world came out to see the quint-essential North American sport of rodeo – and gay rodeo at that!
Personally, I was very proud to take a gold medal in the steer wrestling (chute dogging) event, setting a new world record in it by .01 second. Also winning a gold medal in the famous goat dressing event with my rodeo partner.
What does sports diversity mean to you and where do you see it going?
To me, it’s having a sport open and welcoming to all individuals, like gay rodeo. I see sports getting increasingly diverse but the one thing I don’t really see is gay rodeo being embraced by our straight rodeo peers for another generation or so. So I see LGBT sports having a place in our community for a long time.
Photo courtesy of IGRA
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