‘The Super Bowl of Linemen’

A little fraternity, a lot of competition as co-op lineworkers compete to be the best of the best

BONNER SPRINGS, Kan.—Throughout late August and September, electric cooperative linemen put their skills to the test rebuilding power systems destroyed by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

In October, they put those same skills to the test against elite utility linemen from around the world—and came out on top.

A three-member journeyman team from Cobb Electric Membership Corp. won “Best of the Best” honors at the International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo, while other co-op linemen registered strong showings in a record field of more than 1,000 competitors.

“This is the Super Bowl of linemen. This is the biggest event in this country, probably the biggest in the world,” said Jason McKinney, coach of a team from Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative in Chase City, Virginia.

Up until a few days before, it was uncertain whether some co-ops were far enough removed from storm restoration duties to send teams to the Oct. 14 event, held at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, just west of Kansas City, Missouri.

That made their performances even more impressive, because hurricane work had sent crews on far-flung mutual aid missions that looked like a bad travelogue.

“We’re running into a lot of guys that we were out working the storms with a few weeks ago,” said Eric Bitzko, technical services supervisor for Pedernales Electric Cooperative and part of the support staff for the co-op’s 10 entrants.

“After two or three days of Harvey, we went out and helped out around Victoria, Texas, then to Jackson Electric in Texas, and then from there we went to Talquin Electric Co-op in Florida and then to Clay Electric farther down in Florida. Then we came back and now we’re up here,” he said.

“It was looking bleak for a while,” said Tim Burns, a line foreman at Jackson Electric Membership Corp., who helped with the co-op’s 10-member team. “We worked all day Sunday [Oct. 8] cleaning up from Irma. It wasn’t until Monday night that we really figured we’d be able to get here for certain.”

“It cut into our own practice time,” added lineman David Carlton of Jefferson, Georgia-based Jackson EMC. “But a lot of people here are in the same boat.”

In its 34th year, the rodeo attracted 238 three-man journeyman teams and 313 apprentice linemen from co-ops, investor-owned utilities, municipal systems and contractors in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Top honors went to Scotty Lyons, Jeremy Norment and Josh Poston of Cobb EMC in Marietta, Georgia. They finished first among journeyman crews after finishing four events without a single miscue. In a tiebreaker based on time, they edged a team from Kansas City Power & Light by less than a half-second.

Nick Morris of Johnson City, Texas-based Pedernales Electric Co-op placed third in the overall apprentice division.

Lineworkers compete at the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, Kansas. (Photo by Denny Gainer)
Lineworkers compete at the International Lineman’s Rodeo in Bonner Springs, Kansas. (Photo by Denny Gainer)

Among other performances, Jackson EMC’s Kaleb Chapman took first in three individual apprentice events—a hurt-man rescue from the top of a pole, an insulator change out and a pole climb. The climbing contest drew audible gasps because linemen had to descend with a raw egg in their mouth. But cracked eggs were few and far between.

Cobb EMC’s Tyler Dilbeck and Dalton Cuthbertson captured second and third in the apprentice insulator competition, a “mystery” event unannounced until the day before the rodeo. Cuthbertson was third in the apprentice hurt-man rescue.

“There’s a lot of testosterone out here; you can feel that. It’s a pride thing, skill and pride,” said Rick Aulgar, area operations supervisor at White River Valley Electric Co-op, Branson, Missouri. “Even when our own guys do the speed climb, they’re competing against each other along with everybody else.”

The rodeo also gave hundreds of family members and electricity customers a firsthand look at what they can’t see in the middle of a hurricane. Just a few weeks ago, Greg John and fellow lineworkers from Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative in Gonzales, Texas, toiled from dawn to dusk for about 10 days straight after Harvey hit, and John said cleanup work remains back home.

“When you’re out there working a storm on your daily job, nobody gets to see you do what you do. You go out here, people are yelling and hollering at each other to do good,” John said. “You’re going to compete during the day, then at night you’re all going to sit down and drink beer together like you’re best friends.”

Dale Warman, co-chairman of the rodeo’s board of directors, said the rodeo gets bigger and better every year with a major trade show and a two-day conference on developments in linemen safety.

“The whole idea behind this from day one with our model was this is for linemen, about linemen and by linemen. Nothing else,” he said. “Our reward is seeing linemen and their families have a good time.”

The rodeo has a complete listing of results and finishes.