COLUMBIA — When most kids are 4, they learn to ride bikes. When Justin Smith was 4, he learned to ride bulls.
After his uncle introduced him to the sport, Smith knew he wanted to be a professional bull rider when he grew up. He practiced on sheep before graduating to the larger animals.
"It’s just all he wanted to do," said his mother, Phyllis Smith.
When he was five, his parents bought him a bicycle. He reacted with an incredulous, "You want me to get hurt?"
"He’s out here doing this (bull riding), yet he didn’t want to ride a bicycle," his mother said, laughing.
Now 16, Justin is only days away from competing in the National High School Rodeo Finals in Rock Springs, Wyo. He finished in the top four in point standings at last month's state finals to qualify.
Justin will be a senior at Hickman High School in the fall, and he has no plans of leaving the sport after graduation. He'd like to attend a college where he can still rodeo. From there, he hopes to continue riding and one day become a world champion, just as he'd dreamed when he was younger.
But Justin's high hopes for a professional career haven't tempered his want for a college degree.
"A lot of people don’t go to college because they think they’ll just make it professionally," Justin said. "Except then they get hurt and have nothing to fall back on."
The injuries riders can sustain cause some anxiety for those close to Justin, but his mother supports his passion despite the risks.
Before every rodeo, all contestants and fans join in a prayer recited by the announcer. Bull riders also have a separate prayer with their group. She points to this religious aspect as one of the reasons she supports rodeo.
"It’s one of the few sports where we still have prayer," his mother said.
United by prayer and their passion for the sport, rodeo fans and contestants form a small community — one that Justin likens to kin.
"We’re all like a big family. Behind the shoots, we all just laugh and make jokes," he said. "All the bull riders are like my brothers."