There were no bucking broncos or rodeo clowns at the National Gas Rodeo in Kansas City last weekend.
But there were 58 teams of natural gas workers taking their on-the-job skills to a new extreme — including one team from Mid-Missouri.
"Last time anyone had been to the rodeo from Ameren Missouri was in 2012, so we had to reinvent the wheel on everything," said Levi Mealy, a Fulton resident who works for Ameren in Columbia.
He and four work buddies — Robert Hillerman, Trevor Brockman, Brandon Safranek and Trenton Marshall-Isom, all of Columbia — formed one of two teams Ameren sent to the competition. They struck up a friendly rivalry with the second team, from Wentzville, Mealy said.
The five, dubbing themselves the Troubadours, volunteered to compete in the three-day event.
"We're going on our second year in the gas department, and this is our first time competing," Mealy said. "It was our first time competing, so we didn't really know what exactly we were getting into."
Founded in 1991 by a gas company in Denver, Colorado, the National Gas Rodeo has since become a multi-day competition and an industry favorite activity. A news release from Ameren described the rodeo as "the Olympics of the natural gas industry," where gas technicians "from across the country compete to prove they are the greatest and safest in the industry."
Mealy explained the competition is divided into phases. Competitors spend day one familiarizing themselves with the rules. On day two, all the teams compete in four qualifying events: the meter set-up, hand dig, service installation and pipe cut. They're judged on time and thoroughness. Lastly, the top 10 teams compete in a relay event to determine an overall winner. Teams consist of four members plus an alternate.
"Our commitment to safety is second to none. The communities we serve should be proud to know that every time we visit a customer to change a meter or repair a leak, we provide excellent and safe service every time," said Pamela Harrison, director of gas operations for Ameren Missouri. "This competition simply highlights the great work we do every day."
Though the skills being tested are ones Mealy and his coworkers use regularly, they still trained hard, he said.
"We spent some time making the tools to do everything. We had to modify simple things like shovels and screwdrivers to make them faster and more efficient for us," he explained. "We practiced, I think, for two weeks just off and on, then three days before the event we hit it hard."
As coworkers, the team had the advantage of already knowing each member's strengths and work style.
He extended thanks to the management team — including Rich Grimpo, Harrison and gas operations supervisor Chris Dixson, the team's coach — for giving the team time to train, tools and the opportunity to go.
At the rodeo itself, the hand dig was among Mealy's favorite events.
"You dig a hole, 3-foot-by-4-foot-by-3-foot deep," Mealy said. "It's just filled with sand and pea-gravel, a 50-50 mix. You have to dig it out and uncover five dots at the bottom of the hole."
With four modified shovels and practice, the Troubadours completed the challenge in 40 seconds — impressive, but well short of the 2011 record of 25 seconds.
"Service installation was one of our best events," Mealy said. "It was a lot different than what we were practicing. We had to get half-inch pipe and run it 50 feet, tap the gas main and then put the riser, get it ready with tracer wires and all set to go."
Essentially, the team knocked out a complete gas service installation from scratch in 90 seconds.
The Troubadours didn't quite make the final round, coming in at 18th place.
"We're going against guys who've been doing (the rodeo together) for the past six years or more," he said.
Each evening, the competitors gathered to eat dinner, try out new equipment and swap stories. Mealy said he enjoyed meeting fellow professionals from as far away as California, Minnesota and New Mexico.
"It was just crazy," Mealy said. "It's hard to explain the energy at the event. You've got everyone yelling and having a good time."
That's a far cry from daily life on the job, he said.
"We kind of go unknown most of the time with gas," Mealy said. "It's a little different to be recognized like that."
The Troubadours are already making plans to return next year, he added.
"We're going to have a way different approach next year because we actually know what we're doing," Mealy said with a laugh.