IBEW linemen Brian Wheeler and Toby Claude were part of a dynasty in the world of lineman's rodeo. They competed together on three-man teams that won the best-of-the-best division at the international competition three consecutive times, from 2009 to 2011.
|Houston Local 66 members Darrell Harrison, Matt Sanders and Justin Korenek celebrate their first-place finish in the journeyman IOU competition.
|Members of Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47 at the International Lineman's Rodeo.
But after the 2012 season, they decided to walk away.
"It had come to a point where we weren't having fun anymore," Wheeler said. "We felt satisfied we had accomplished everything we had set out to do and more."
During the next 12 years, the Montana native worked throughout the West, living in Arizona, Washington and finally Southern California, where he is now a member of Diamond Bar Local 47.
He began his return to competition in 2018 and eventually reunited with Claude, also a Local 47 member. They combined with friend and fellow Local 47 member Curt Norris — who was not part of the first three titles — to win another championship at the 2023 International Lineman's Rodeo, held Oct. 11-14 in Overland Park, Kansas.
"I felt like I still had something to offer," said Wheeler, 47. "I wanted to help a young, talented team reach a similar level that we did. Pass the torch, so to speak.
"But after a couple of successful seasons, the priorities changed. I realized I missed the competition. It helps you get excited about line work. It helps you get excited about the job we do every day. When I wasn't rodeoing, I missed that."
Claude attributed the victory to good communication.
"Knowing the job, knowing how each other works, and being able to shift on the fly and say, 'Let's do this instead of that.' It's all key," he said.
As is often the case, IBEW members dominated the competition in Kansas. They won seven of the 11 divisions, with winners representing Houston Local 66; Charlotte, N.C., Local 962; and Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245. The team of Wheeler, Claude and Norris also won the Journeyman Mystery Event #2 competition and the Journeyman Contractor division.
"I was able to attend this year's International Lineman's Rodeo and seeing highly trained and experienced linemen like Brian Wheeler, Toby Claude, and Curt Norris from Local 47 show off the skills they have learned from an IBEW apprenticeship and the knowledge they have learned in their careers in the trade is truly special," said Ninth District International Vice President Dave Reaves, whose district includes California.
"The IBEW and Ninth District local unions have a great history of success competing at the rodeo, showing our safety and training is second to none."
Wheeler's role was different than during his earlier run of titles. This time, instead of working in the air, he served as the groundman, something he took on when he returned to competition in 2018, while Norris and Claude worked the pole in the air. All three were employed by Hot Line Construction when they formed their team.
"I stayed the groundman when Toby, Curt and I teamed up because I had the groundman experience and they have the reach on the pole," he said. "You've got to put your best team in the air. Plus, years of rodeo and playing baseball have taken a toll on my knees and back."
Norris and Wheeler became good friends while teaching at a lineman's training school in Washington state.
"When I first got into it, all I thought it was about was speed," said Norris, a U.S. Air Force veteran who transitioned into line work 15 years ago. "Toby and Brian were some of the fastest guys around when I first started. Now, we're getting older and we're not as fast as we used to be. This win was about communication."
Speed is just one aspect participants are judged on. They also are judged on agility, technique and safety procedures. Experience probably played a factor, too. The three have a combined 64 years of IBEW membership, led by Wheeler with 26, followed by Claude, 23, and Norris, 15.
Like Wheeler, Claude walked away from the rodeo circuit for several years after the 2012 season.
"Personally, I felt like I didn't have anything else to prove," he said. "I still enjoyed it, but I felt like it was time to focus more on work and family."
He agreed to return when he saw that Wheeler and Norris needed a third member of their team. He had remained close to his old teammate. Wheeler was the best man at Claude's wedding in 2013.
Norris also developed a close relationship with Wheeler in the intervening years.
It didn't come easy. Both had strong opinions on the job. "We did not see eye to eye on anything at work when we first met," Norris said.
But they got to know each other better working at the teaching school and later when they moved to California. They each call the other their best friend.
"He's the most loyal guy I've ever met," Norris said. "He's an incredible person."
Norris had competed in rodeos earlier in his career. He told Wheeler after relocating to California he would like to form a team with him if he decided to return. He also found himself often working on a crew with Claude.
Pretty soon, they all were competing, culminating in the international title.
"I was taught as an apprentice there is always something to do in the air," Norris said. "Whether it's tightening a bolt, loosening a bolt, there's so many things. There's always something that can be done to get the job done right."
All three said there are similarities between rodeo competition and work they do on the job, but not as much as an outside observer might think.
For instance, they'll spend at least eight hours a day out in the field. Rodeo events last two to 20 minutes and are spread out over one day. On the job, they take pauses to address safety and procedural issues to ensure an entire crew is on the same page.
"The good thing about rodeo and something that helps with our trade in general is we want to do it the safest and most efficient way possible," Claude said. "When you look at an event, you can come up with 88 different ways to do it. When you get back to work, you look at every job and you ask yourself: How do I do this with the least amount of moves and where it is fast and safe?"
Returning to the championship level was a poignant moment for Wheeler. He credits rodeo for saving his career as a young apprentice.
Wheeler said he was struggling on the job toward the end of his first year when a rodeo yard was set up at his training facility.
"I've always been competitive, and that sparked something in me," he said. "By the end of the day, I started competing with the second- and third-year guys."
What he didn't realize at the time was that the company he was working for was planning to fire him the following Monday. Instead, a foreman from the company saw him excelling on the rodeo skills and decided to give him another chance.
He ran with it. Wheeler said that foreman told him the story on the day he topped out.
"Some of the new guys coming in think they're all alone in their struggles," he said. "I've shared that story with them. It helps them move and get more involved in rodeo. It can take a mediocre guy and really make him good."
Norris said being awarded their first-place plaques and the belt buckle that signifies a champion was a special moment.
"When I had a chance to go up there, especially the guys I did it with, it was super special to me," he said. "It's still surreal. It's pretty neat."
Local 47 Business Manager Colin Lavin saluted the three and all the other IBEW linemen who did a terrific job of representing the Brotherhood.
"Being a third generation IBEW member, I grew up going to picnics and rodeo events just like this one," said Lavin, who attended this year's rodeo and the events surrounding it. "I think it's a great time for the brotherhood to get together and showcase their skills for the world to see, with an added benefit of being the top team with bragging rights."