Many kids dream of becoming a firefighter. Mitch Russell always had his eyes on rodeo

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Most kids dream of one day becoming a firefighter, police officer or maybe running out for their favourite sporting team, but for a young Mitch Russell, his eyes were set on rodeo.

As a teenager he discovered lasting eight seconds on a bucking bull was tricky, but the role he took up as a protection athlete in the arena was often more dangerous.

Gone is the label of a rodeo clown — it is protection athletes that put their bodies between bulls weighing upwards of 700 kilograms and the bull riders as they fall from the animals and scramble to safety.

“It’s not a full career; it’s a glorified hobby,” Mr Russell laughed.

“My career is in cattle work and I took bullfighting as just a fun sort of cattle work.”

A man in a hat stand next to his wife and son, who is holding a belt buckle.A man in a hat stand next to his wife and son, who is holding a belt buckle.
Mitch Russell says his wife and family have been huge supporters.(Supplied: Mitch Russell)

After spending nearly every weekend in the rodeo arena for the past 17 years, Mr Russell has now retired.

“They say bullfighting is 90 per cent mental and the rest in your head.

Rodeo brotherhood

Protection athletes usually work in pairs and Mr Russell said he was lucky to form some long-lasting partnerships on the rodeo circuit.

“It’s just easy. You don’t think about it,” he reflected on having a good partner.

“You know those guys 100 per cent have your back and you can do your job without worrying about anything else.”

He said it was often sharing secret wins with his partner that was most rewarding.

“It’s a very ungrateful sport, I guess you could say — a lot of people really don’t know what you’ve done apart from yourself and your partner, and a lot of it is just little stuff.

“That’s what really made it special to me.

The rodeo circuit and Pro Bull Riding (PBR) in particular was “a bit of a brotherhood” between the riders and fighters, Mr Russell said, adding that he always had a strong support team at home too.

“It made it that much easier to get run over for [the riders].

“My wife, she used to love coming away and watching me. She was very supportive, never doubted my ability or never worried.

A man with his hand on a bulls head, shielding a bull rider who's on the ground.A man with his hand on a bulls head, shielding a bull rider who's on the ground.
Now breeding bucking bulls, Mitch Russell spent many years on the PBR circuit.(Supplied: Mitch Russell)

‘I’ve been lucky’

Mr Russell said he was well aware that a bad night in the arena could have seen his glorified hobby stopped in its tracks.

“Not everyone gets to finish how I did,” he said.

“They get forced to finish.”

But Mr Russell said something recently felt different for him.

“I always told myself that if I thought about retiring or thought about the dangers of it, I’d leave, and I just felt it was that time,” he said.

A man runs from a bull as another man steps in to protect himA man runs from a bull as another man steps in to protect him
Mitch Russell says the tough sport is made easier thanks to the support within the “brotherhood”.(Supplied: Mitch Russell)

But looking back on 17 years of injuries, he said it was rarely anything serious.

“I’ve been really lucky [with] only a handful of broken bones and a lot of bumps and bruises … a few knee reconstructions.

“That was probably the scariest one but not a major one.”

Not straying too far

Mr Russell said he had no regrets as he looked forward to watching rodeos from the other side of the fence. 

“I still get a kick out of watching bull riding because it is a pretty extreme sport.”

He also breeds rodeo bulls at his Hunter Valley property and hopes to play a small part in the continuation of Australia’s bull riding industry.

As for his son, for now he wants to follow in dad’s footsteps but Mr Russell is not so sure.

“He’s been on a few little calves at home … he says he’s going to be a bullfighter but I don’t think he will.