It’s a typical mid-August day in eastern Colorado–so dry that a gulp of water mixes with dust in your throat and makes mud. Across the sun-glazed arena of the Akron fairgrounds booms the announcer’s voice “… and all the way from Montana, ladies and gentlemen….” In worn Wranglers and rugby shirt, world-champion bullrider Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckowski lowers herself onto Cottontail– 1,500 pounds of raging Brahma muscle.
Jonnie’s right arm, spirally fractured in 12 places by a bull’s hooves nearly two years ago, is tightly wrapped. This is her first major competition since the accident.
In the closet-sized chute, the bun rocks with anticipation, slamming his rider’s knees into metal bars brown with mud and dung. “Good boy,” whispers Jonnie, patting his neck with empathy. Perhaps in his angry eyes she sees a part of herself.
Jonnie nods quickly to the gatekeeper, and Cottontail jolts from his prison. She fixes her eyes on the bull’s shoulders, and the world turns into an impressionistic blur. Her body snaps back and forth like a rag doll. Using raw adrenaline and power, she plays the game for life and limb. Eternity passes and a horn sounds, but she is already on the ground. Cottontail wins the round.
The bull may have won in Akron, but back home in Billings – in places like the Muzzle Loader Cafe – Jonnie is the main attraction. She’s the Belle of Billings,” in a modern-montana sort of way – more feminine than brutish, more Lycra than spurs. Twice the Women’s World Bullriding Champion, she has rodeoed her way across the West, raising eyebrows, changing stereotypes.
Women have been competing in rodeo for nearly 10 decades. Though male rodeo is by far the larger sport, women have a rodeo circuit of their own. There are about 1,600 women competing in two divisions in pro rodeo – 1,500 in barrel racing under the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) and about 100 competing in roping and bronc and bullriding events under the Professional
Women’s Rodeo Association (PWRA). Of those, 20 women compete for the bullriding title, earning points at all-women rodeos or in women-sanctioned events on the men’s rodeo circuit.
The women had one of their largest audiences two years ago at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon, where they rode both bulls and broncs as a demonstration sport. Except for the ride time (women must ride for six seconds to score, men must ride for eight) the competition is equal. “I ride the same bulls as the men,” says Jonnie. “But I’m not out there to compete with the guys. I’m just playing the same game, which is to beat the bull.”
Women competitors at a typical rodeo draw a curious audience and a skeptical mix of cowboys behind the chutes. But Jonnie makes it a point to maintain her femininity, rather than to reinforce stereotypes of “macho” cowgirls. In keeping with her image, she doesn’t “spit, chew or cuss.” Which isn’t to say that she isn’t any fun. “I have a wild streak in me,” she admits. “I like to party; I like my whiskey; I like to get on the tables every now and then and swing from the chandeliers.”
But typically, you’ll find this competitor more athlete than cowgirl, studying nutrition rather than drinking beer. “I don’t really feel comfortable in my cowboy clothes. You’re more apt to find me in workout clothes,” she says. “Riding bulls is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I train for it like I would any sport, the only way I know how to: with discipline, dedication and focus.”
By the time the baking sun sets over the pasture near her home, Jonnie has put in a full day of training. That day starts with a 10-mile run with her Golden Retrievers jake and Pal, then a two-hour workout at the Billings Athletic Club. Assisted by her personal trainer, Jonnie does a 10-minute warmup on an exercise bike and 100 floors on a stairclimber. After an hour with weight machines and free weights (she bench presses 167 pounds), she throws in a few tricep dips. “They don’t call me `girl-illa’ for nothing,” she laughs.
After another five-mile run, Jonnie stuffs her fanny pack full of oats and heads for her horses. Leaping onto the bare back of Casey, her black Arabian, she lopes figure-eights through the grass. “This is one of the most important things I do,” she explains. “Bull riding is legs and stomach, not arms and chest. Riding bareback also helps with my balance.”
Jonnie has been a top all-around athlete her entire life, competing in everything from triathlons to body building. “I had to be better than everyone,” she says. “I don’t know where the competition comes from, but it just bums a hole in you. ” While growing up, however, the thought of riding bulls for a living never crossed her mind. “I was never a cowgirl, just a girl who liked horses,” she remembers. Her hopes were set, instead, on competing in the Olympics, a dream she had trained for since she was 6. While training for the pentathlon Olympic trials in 1975, however, she tripped on a hurdle and suffered a devastating back injury. In one quick second, her life-long ambition was shattered.
After a year and a half, her competitive spirit was sparked once again when she saw a poster for a local all-women’s rodeo. At that event she rode Mountain Man. “It was the biggest rush in the world. The bull was so powerful that when I got onto it, I instantly saw how athletic it was. But,” she adds, “I didn’t know enough to be afraid of it.”
Her naivete didn’t last long. While attending a bullriding school in 1977, she got a taste of what was to come. “On my last ride, I fell off after the whistle blew and the bull kicked me right in the face. I saw the hoof coming and then I saw it retract, and I thought, he missed me. Then one guy says, `Jesus, her nose is tore off.’ I realized I had a severe hole in my face.”
That accident was the first in a long series of breaks, bruises and near misses that have resulted in several reconstructive surgeries. “It’s pretty bad when you know your anesthesiologist by his first name,” she laughs. “But it’s amazing what they can do with a face. Mine looks pretty much the same,” she says matter-of-factly, “though my eyebrows are a little thinner, the bridge of my nose is a little thicker and I have a bit of a crooked smile. What the hell, it just gives me more character.”
Her character, however, was in for a few more lessons. Ironically, one of her scariest moments in the sport came outside the arena. It was in San Antonio, Texas, and Jonnie was just one bull away from winning her first world championship title and, she thought, from finally achieving the athletic recognition she missed years before in the Olympics.
“I just had to ride this one easy bull,” she remembers. “But, as I was stretching behind the chutes, here comes a bull right at me.” In a freak accident, a bull had escaped from the gate. “Something ruptured in his head that made him go crazy. I was in a corner where they couldn’t pull me out, so he just kept slamming me. I’ve been run over and hooked since, but not like that. I had nightmares about it for a long time, screaming `get him off of me!’ ” Besides a fractured leg and permanent dents in her shins, the accident cost her that year’s world champion tide.
In 1985 she came a little closer to her dream when she became the reserve world champion (second place). “The oddity of the sport was attracting a lot of spectators and media. I was looking good and athletic, and I was pleased with myself for being an entrepreneur – going off and achieving what I thought would eventually take care of me.” But her bullriding obsession, requiring constant training and traveling, was costing her everything. “I didn’t want to live like a gypsy, so I built up thousands of dollars in debt. I had to drop my health club membership, so I was using innovative training techniques – sit-ups on the rails of the barn, running through the tall alfalfa pastures with sand buckets.”
Finally, in 1986 in Guthrie, Oklahoma, she would see her goal. Once again, however, it nearly cost her her life. On her first of three rides in the finals, a bull stepped on her, crushing the nerves behind her knee. “I could have lost my leg, or had a stroke or heart attack,” she says. Nonetheless, she was determined to compete for the tide.
The next day, Jonnie’s friends lifted her off her crutches and set her on the bull for the ride that won her her first world championship belt buckle. “I did a jubilant dance on my knees, not quite how I had envisioned it all these years, but it worked. I thought `thank God, at last.’ I had had so many things so close and then taken away, but I finally pulled something off. I held my head in my hands and the tears ran down my arm – big happy tears.”
Unfortunately, not all the tears in Jonnie’s life were as happy. Less than a year after she won her championship, the man she planned to marry was killed in a plane crash, along with the members of his country music band. “[Reconciling his death] ended up being one of my biggest challenges,” says Jonnie. ” I was determined to go out and win another championship for Terry and the band.” In 1988, she did just that. “By tying his dreams with mine, I gave him the gold record he never had, but so richly deserved.” She had a tribute to the band engraved on that year’s championship buckle.
With that loss behind her, she has gone on to other dreams. Though she still competes on the circuit, her answering machine is likely to hold messages from agents or writers involved in making a movie of her hfe story. She gives motivational lectures around the country, models sportswear and occasionally travels with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, personal friends who even wrote a song for her titled “The Bullrider is a Lady.”
Last summer, Jonnie found another offbeat challenge with the American Gladiators television competition, where she made it to the semifinals in events such as “Power Ball,” “Hang Tough” and “Break Through and Conquer.”
But her most rewarding accomplishment came when she was elected to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Hereford, Texas. “I’m thrilled that I’ll be recognized on the same level as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane,” she says. “Not to mention my hero, Alice Greenough (world champion bullrider in the ’20s and ’30s). I believed I had given as much as one could humanly give, but I didn’t know anyone else saw it.”
It seems appropriate that Jonnie’s Montana home lies somewhere between the Sacrifice Bluffs and the Crazy Mountains. “People don’t see the loneliness, the sacrifice, the relationships come and gone,” she says. But all the pain has been worth it. “Any time you have the freedom to do what you want to do and exercise that freedom, you’re a champ,” she says. “And, to raise my hands and have 30,000 people cheer I love it!”