World-record roper

Nobody works a lasso like Waterford's Charlie Keyes

ByDoug Stwert/The Week

(Published August 18, 2006, 3:15 p.m.)

Follow your dreams; don't let them go." That's Charlie Keyes' advice.

But how, you ask, do you do that? There are kids and bills, jobs to do and businesses to run.

And what you dreamed of as a kid is most probably-unless you are very, very lucky, or very, very driven-not what you are doing now.

Charlie Keyes of Waterford, Wis. had all those things working against him. But now he is a World Champion Big Loop lasso trick roper, having won his title in what is really the Western Arts Olympics held in Claremore, Okla.

He is tall and lanky, kind of a blond version of Gary Cooper, with a ready smile and a self-effacing manner. And his love of roping is written all over his face.

Charlie grew up on the Green Meadows Farm in Waterford. Green Meadows is an educational center for children that teaches farm life to city kids.

"When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cowboy," Keyes said. "And those childhood dreams never left me. We rode dray horses and ponies, and I loved every minute of it."

But we all grow up. Charlie learned his trade as a carpenter and moved to Texas for a couple of years to practice his building skills. "I didn't do much cowboy stuff in Texas, just worked. When I moved back to Wisconsin I got married, started a family and built a home remodeling business." His business is Keyes Home Remodeling out of Waterford. "But I never lost sight of my cowboy dreams."

"Seven years ago, a cowboy from Texas performed at the Chocolate Fest in Burlington. He did trick roping, gun spinning and was amazing with a bull whip! I was hooked all over again." The dream was back and in full grip. "I started practicing all of that stuff and competing wherever possible."

He competed in Las Vegas for four years running, which was where the Wild West Arts Club held the competitions before moving to Claremore, Okla. two years ago.

The Wild West Arts Club began 16 years ago with a trick ropers convention held at the Will Rogers Ranch in California, with Will Rogers Jr. and his brother Jimmy in attendance. The competition became an annual event and moved to Las Vegas and then to its permanent home in Claremore, Okla., the home of the Will Rogers Memorial.

As the WWAC has grown, so has the list of events and the number of participants. Roping competitions include Big Loop and the Texas skip. But there are other contests as well. Gun spinning and quick draw, bull whip cracking, knife throwing, and trick riding are what the WWAC calls Arena Arts. These were skills that any competent cowboy in the Old West had to possess, but perhaps not at this level.

"People from all over the world compete in these events. I competed for five years prior, trying to do a little better each year.

"Eighteen months ago, I decided that I was going to win the Big Loop competition. I got into weight training, I started running to increase my endurance and I did aerobics training.

The Burlington Wellness Clinic allowed me the use of their aerobics room and their basketball court where I could practice the Big Loop.

How difficult is it to learn rope tricks? "Well, some are fairly easy and can be mastered in a couple of weeks; one, the Butterfly, took me five years. In that one the rope must be spun in a vertical loop, from side to side, without collapsing.

"Two years ago, after a competition, I came home and really started practicing heavily, several days a week, several hours a day, all aimed at this year's competition."

And all that hard work paid off in April of this year. "I did break the world's record at home, practicing, but that's not the same thing. Trick roping is actually two different things. A lot of it is done by feel, and I had to get the feel, rather than the sound, into my body." He wore earmuffs as he practiced to deaden the sound of the whistling rope. "I knew I wouldn't be able to hear that over the crowd."

But the second part is endurance. "It takes a lot of strength and muscle endurance to get a rope out that far." How far? The previous world record was 99 feet and it was set eight years ago in 1998. Charlie Keyes set the new record at 107 feet 2 inches, using a 120-foot rope he designed and decorated himself. He will also be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. "I won't be using this rope again," he grins. It has earned an honored place among his trophies.

What was the prize for the world record? A $500 check, a very special belt buckle, and a certificate. And the realization of a dream come true for the cowboy from Waterford.

Next year he is going to try to beat his own record. "The crowd response was overwhelming. I was mentally and physically exhausted; I didn't sleep much the four months before the competition. But I want to do it again.

His best advice is "Follow your dreams. There may be mountains and valleys, all sorts of thing get in the way, but if you keep your focus, you'll get there."

Charlie doesn't just do competitions; he is a skilled Western performer, and expert with a bull whip and a gun twirler himself. "I do church gatherings, private parties, corporate gatherings, school programs, anywhere people want to have some unforgettable entertainment. I did a church gathering in Waukesha a couple of weeks ago and I cracked the whip inside the sanctuary. The sound was intense. But they loved it."

If you would like to contact Charlie for your special event, you can call him at (262)-492-0300.

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