TACOMA, Wash. – Gage Gay’s teeth had an iron-clad grip on his black mouthpiece three weeks ago as the pain in his hip resonated throughout his 5-foot-6 body.
Gay desperately put his arms out as he tried to grab onto one of the walls inside the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as he hobbled and grimaced his way to the PBR sports medicine room.
“It is my hip,” Gay muttered to the sports medicine team as sweat and saliva mixed around his mouth.
Fast forward a week later and the 22-year-old was riding Lip Trick for 86.25 points for his third consecutive ride at the Stanley Performance In Action Invitational, presented by Cooper Tires, and was well on his way to a season-best sixth-place finish.
So how on earth did Gay go from being unable to walk and missing the final day of competition in South Dakota to having his best performance since last September – third-place finish in Charlotte – in seven days?
“Same old thing,” Gay replied nonchalantly two weeks ago. “It is just always sore. Last week leaving, I could barely walk. They told me it would take a couple days to release and it did. It still hurts, but that is part of it.
“I had to work past it and get off the alternate list.”
Ah, the dreaded Built Ford Tough Series cutline.
Gay was on his way to Billings for the Stanley Performance In Action Invitational when he got an email from the PBR competition department with the weekend’s draw.
As he perused the document, Gay noticed he was ranked 31st in the world standings and was only a mere 45 points ahead of the cutline.
For a rider that admittedly doesn’t pay much attention to the standings, the email certainly woke him up.
“Well, I never paid attention to it until (before Billings),” Gay said. “I looked at the email draw and it said I was the first alternate. I didn’t like that. There is a lot of emotions. You are pissed off at yourself.”
Gay had a chance at the victory in Billings before being bucked off by Tractor Tippin in 5.19 seconds during the Built Ford Tough Championship Round.
Regardless, he still earned a crucial 138.3 points toward the world standings with his 3-for-4 performance
“I got my hammer down and rode some bulls,” Gay said.
Gay now heads into the Tacoma Invitational, presented by Cooper Tires, ranked 26th in the world standings.
“I have just been sore here lately,” Gay said. “My hip, shoulders and my wrist. Something is always aching. It was this weekend too.”
Gay takes on Dirty Gringo (0-0, BFTS) in Round 1 on Saturday night. Fans can watch the event exclusively on Twitter beginning at 10:15 p.m. ET.
Despite being ranked in the bottom half of the Top 35, Gay is actually riding at his highest percentage (33.33 percent) since his rookie season in 2014 (33.78 percent).
Gay is 11-for-33 in 12 BFTS events with two round victories.
Sioux Falls and Billings were night and day for Gay.
In Billings, it was hard to notice Gay dealing with any pain the way he made smooth work out of Crazy Days (86.5 points), Can’t Get Right (86.25 points) and Lip Trick (86.25 points) during the three long rounds.
Gay was familiar with Can’t Get Right after watching Aaron Roy’s 82.5-point effort aboard the bovine athlete last year.
However, Can’t Get Right ended up being different than what Gay anticipated.
“He really surprised me,” Gay said. “Aaron is so tall that he made that bull look tiny. When I showed up, I was like, ‘Holy crap, I really got a full grown one here.’”
The shock was short-lived as Gay handled Can’t Get Right into his hand with relative ease.
“I knew he was going to be good into my hand, and I knew he was going to be strong,” Gay said. “I knew I had to stay out over him to ride him and that is just what I did.”
Gay had not ridden three consecutive bulls at a BFTS event in two years. Coincidentally, Gay last rode three straight bulls at the 2015 Billings event.
Nine-time World Champion Ty Murray had said earlier in Billings that Gay needed to attack his bulls with the confidence fans had seen from the Staley, North Carolina, bull rider in the past.
Murray saw that confidence when Gay nodded for Lip Trick.
“This is that confidence,” Murray said during the CBS Sports Network broadcast. “Look at Gage Gay. He isn’t sitting up there waiting to see how it goes or what is going to happen. He knows this bull is going to the right and he is going at him with that aggressiveness. You see him opening up with that outside foot.
“This is where confidence is born and grows from.”
Prior to Tacoma, Gay will compete at the 2nd annual Sean Willingham Invitational on Friday night. Gay is one of eight Top 35 riders headed to the Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Tour event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before hopping a flight to Seattle on Saturday morning.
Gay is a somewhat comfortable 208.33 points ahead of the cutline, but he would still like to get some additional points to really separate himself from the Top 30.
“I know I can do better,” he concluded. “I know I belong in the Top 5 or 10 in the world. Being 30th is just unacceptable.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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