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Photo Illustration by Christina Animashaun/Vox; James Phifer/Rodeobum.com, Getty Images

She wanted to ride with men in one of the world’s most dangerous sports. She had a lot more than her competition to be worried about.

The Highlight by Vox logo

Part of the Escape Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


I’m not going out on the stretcher!” shouted Maggie Parker. She winced on the dank dirt as the smell of manure hung in the air.

It was the spring of 2012 in Ponca, Nebraska, and Maggie was lying on the ground inside the arena at the Days of ’56 Rodeo, one of 600-plus competitions sanctioned every year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Each spring, some 4,000 cowboys begin crisscrossing North America to compete in PRCA events, from roping and wrestling steers to riding bucking broncos. Although women enter PRCA rodeos, they mostly partake in barrel racing, where horseback riders gallop in a cloverleaf pattern.

But Maggie had chosen bull riding, the world’s most dangerous organized sport and one of the biggest draws at PRCA rodeos. It’s a male-dominated, macho pastime on par with race car driving, except that bull riding is rooted in the mystique of the Wild West, when rough-and-tumble folks roamed the frontier seeking fortune and freedom. Although women have been riding bulls professionally since at least the 1970s, the bulls on the women’s circuit are smaller by orders of magnitude. In 1994, a woman named Polly Reich famously set out to ride the same bulls as men at PRCA rodeos. At one, Polly lacerated her lungs, broke five ribs, and nearly died in an ambulance. Eventually, she quit.

It had been 16 years since the PRCA, the oldest and largest circuit in the world, had witnessed anything like a Polly Reich. Which is why fans seated in the bleachers in Ponca held their breath when 19-year-old Maggie flew out of the chute straddling a gnarly 1,500-pound goliath. Maggie had set her mind on clinching an 8-second ride, but the bull had other plans. As the bull jerked forward wildly, 5-foot-4 Maggie was catapulted onto the bull’s horns for a few violent shakes before she slammed into the dirt. The bull kicked her helmet before stomping away furiously. When Maggie came to, she was loopy.

“Are you sure you can walk?” asked a 20-something EMT kneeling beside her. He moved her protective vest aside to inspect her midsection. Three of her ribs felt broken, he told her, but he couldn’t say for sure. She’d need to get checked at the hospital.

Maggie wasn’t hearing it. And she wasn’t gonna accept a stretcher. Instead, she slowly picked herself back up, straightened her black helmet, and limped toward the gate.

The crowd cheered.

If there was one thing Maggie Parker was sure of, it was that she would not be going to the hospital — not that night. Afterward, she headed to a local bar to drink Pendleton whiskey on the rocks with a couple of cowboys. She’d met Kenny and Keagan at another rodeo somewhere in the middle of America, though she can’t remember where or when. Ever since Maggie first saw bull riding as a teenager growing up in rural Michigan and was compelled to try riding practice bulls late at night (without telling her family or friends), her life had become a blur of people and places and Pendleton.

 James Phifer/Rodeobum.com
Maggie Parker was known for getting back on, even when other new riders refused to climb into the chute with another bull.

After one semester at Michigan State in 2010, she had dropped out and moved by herself to Oklahoma, where she found work as a ranch hand and sales clerk at a Western store. The flexible hours enabled her to zigzag to rodeos across the country off and on for several months, blasting AC/DC and crashing in her truck with a saddle blanket if need be. Parked out in the middle of nowhere at night, she’d put down her tailgate to sit and stargaze, feeling small and singular but not insignificant. On the back window of her burgundy Ford F-150 was a white decal with her name and the silhouette of a bull rider. Across her left shoulder, she eventually got a tattoo of a rider taking charge of a bucking bull.

Maggie can’t recall exactly when bull riding started to feel like an addiction. But at some point, she noticed that when she wasn’t riding, she felt unfulfilled and depressed. After she tried skydiving, she came to understand the alluring power of adrenaline. But gravity is much more predictable than a raging beast.

In the spring of 2012, she was seeking out more bulls to ride. So when Kenny and Keagan asked Maggie to meet them in Kansas and join them on a “run” to four rodeos, including the one in Ponca, she agreed — but reluctantly. Maggie had grown accustomed to traveling alone and being wary of strangers.

Like so many women, she can tell not one story, but too many. When she was 17, she woke up one morning on a boat parked in somebody’s driveway with no recollection of how she got there; the last thing she remembered was drinking with friends, so she assumed someone had slipped her a dose of the sedative Rohypnol. Another time, she was dating a man who used to grab her by the neck and throw her to the floor whenever she talked about leaving him. Eventually, she got away — but not before burning his rodeo gear and favorite cowboy hat in the fireplace.

At her first rodeos, Maggie wasn’t surprised to face a combination of skepticism and sleaziness. Some cowboys were rude or standoffish. They didn’t appreciate a young lady encroaching on their turf. Other men were too friendly. She knew the only reason some cowboys offered to travel with her was to try and sleep with her. But she wasn’t chasing bulls to meet guys or get attention. She was riding because it felt exhilarating.

Kenny and Keagan proved to be decent men and good travel companions. Their run would’ve been a success except for Maggie’s busted ribs and one other thing.

Although Maggie had been riding bulls for a spell, she had yet to place in a rodeo. If she could pull off an 8-second ride and land a respectable score on the 0-100 scale, she had a shot at making history: Maggie set her sights on earning PRCA prize money, a feat no woman had ever achieved. But being a woman in a male-dominated sport meant she would contend with a lot more than just the bulls.


II.

The cowboys could hear a truck approaching before they saw the dust cloud in the distance. It was dusk, and the sun was beginning to bathe the rolling hills of Santa Maria, California, in a deep amber glow. A dozen guys crowded around to see who was driving the dirty burgundy pickup.

The door to the unfamiliar truck swung open and a pair of boots hit the ground.

“Can I just get a shower?” snickered Maggie, looking filthy and exhausted.

It was August 2011, almost a year before the rodeo in Ponca, and she had just finished the 1,500-mile trek from Oklahoma to California. At the Grand Canyon, she strolled along the rim with her horse in tow, posing for impromptu photos snapped by ogling tourists from Germany and China. Outside Bakersfield, California, her truck broke down and she spent a day camped out in a fly-infested junkyard in 100-degree heat, waiting for the Ford’s busted alternator to be repaired.

In Santa Maria, a familiar face stepped forward to welcome her.

Gary Leffew, then a 66-year-old silver-haired cowboy resembling Tom Berenger, is a bull-riding legend. In 1970, he was crowned the World Champion at the National Finals Rodeo, the PRCA’s Super Bowl, held annually in Las Vegas; in his prime, Gary competed in the national finals a record seven times. Gary attributes much of his success to a self-help book called The New Psycho-Cybernetics, which features chapters like “How to De-Hypnotize Yourself from False Beliefs”; he started a school in Santa Maria where he’s coached 16 World Champions. Beyond the mechanics of riding, Gary preaches the power of positive thinking. “You just got to act as if you’re the person you want to be until you become it,” he says. “Your subconscious processes a billion pieces of information per second, so it’s feeding it to you at the speed of light — and it becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy.”

As soon as Maggie heard about the Zen master of bull riding, she sought him out. That May, she drove to Arkansas to attend one of Gary’s workshops, where she got tossed around violently. But she kept on trying, even after other riders refused to climb into the chute with another bull. “In three days, you find out who’s really serious about it,” recalls Gary. “With or without me, she was going to keep doing it.”

He invited Maggie to another workshop in Belton, Texas, and waived her fee. When she picked him up at the airport, Gary suggested that she ride easier bulls and develop a specialty act instead of entering PRCA rodeos. Furious, Maggie spent the next three days at Gary’s workshop riding bull after bull after bull until she could barely walk. “I’m gonna come out to your place and stay for a while,” she told him. Gary had never welcomed a female rider to live, work, and train at his ranch — until Maggie. But he saw something in her, and he felt obliged to help. “If she didn’t get some proper training,” says Gary, “she was gonna kill herself.”

Gary’s 30-acre compound is just over the hill from the Pacific Ocean. When the wind blows just right, the salt air drafts through the valley, picking up the pungent smell of sagebrush. It is the perfect place to close your eyes and manifest your destiny. Riders sleep in a bunkhouse, weight train in a gym, and ride bulls every day. Gary starts everyone on smaller bulls that buck less hard. Like skiers on a bunny slope, students can focus on technique, rather than on just staying alive.

Since the 1990s, bulls have only gotten bigger, stronger, and meaner. The tougher the ride, the better the spectacle. Rodeos are an entertainment business, and business is booming. Beyond PRCA, there is also Professional Bull Riders, an international riding circuit with 100 million TV viewers each year and prize money worth north of $11 million. One of PBR’s tours is called “Unleash the Beast.” An 8-second ride on a harsher beast garners more points than 8 seconds on a lesser bull. The beasts with the nastiest, rankest reputations can be sold for $500,000. One vial of champion bull semen is worth $5,000.

Bull rider Alisson De Souza gets bucked from bull Short Pop during the PBR Unleash the Beast competition.Chris Elise/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
The Professional Bull Riders’ Unleash the Beast is among the sport’s more challenging competitions, pitting riders against ornery bulls for more points.

All that money has fueled a vicious cycle of breeding and carnage. In 2011, a kinesiologist at the University of Calgary estimated that bull riders were more than twice as likely to suffer a catastrophic injury as they were in 1989. None of this is lost on Gary, who has pleaded for the industry to sanction itself and protect young riders from being prematurely exposed to increasingly more aggressive bulls.

That first week in Santa Maria, Maggie could barely handle Gary’s beginner bulls. “She was absolutely horrible,” he recalls. “But she worked hard at it, I’ll say that.” Week after week, Maggie hit the gym, building strength. Gary espoused the virtues of guided meditation and traveling into the lower levels of your consciousness; Maggie began marking passages in her copy of The New Psycho-Cybernetics. Gary refined her technique, telling her to switch free hands so she could build new habits. In turn, Maggie taught Gary how to use a computer and helped him set up a Facebook page. As the months passed, Gary became a father figure to her.

Maggie didn’t talk much about her family. Only years later would Gary learn that Maggie’s father killed himself when she was 4. After his death, she traveled with her mom and 6-year-old brother to Silver Lake, Michigan. When they arrived, they listened to The Eagles’ song “Desperado” before burying his ashes in the white sand. Once they covered the spot with an American flag, Maggie’s mom took a photo of her two children. Kneeling by the stars and stripes, smiling, they are too young to understand what it will mean to spend a lifetime without a father.

While Maggie was training in Santa Maria, all Gary knew was that her mother and older brother lived in Michigan. Since nobody in their family was involved in rodeo, they didn’t understand the appeal of riding bulls. It sounded gratuitously dangerous. For Maggie, though, the rush of skirting death and dismemberment felt too overwhelming to try only once.

Within a matter of months, she had graduated to riding what Gary calls “good kickers.” But Maggie had yet to get up on any “spinners” — bulls that mostly whip around in circles, like the Tasmanian Devil. Studying a bull’s unique rhythm is crucial to riding. Gary compares a successful ride to a dance, in which you link up mentally with your partner and move as one. Every bull is different, adding to the challenge.

When Maggie told Gary she was leaving Santa Maria to hit the PRCA circuit, he couldn’t believe it.

“You can be the best in the world and still get hurt,” he told her. “I’d rather you have another 100 bulls under your belt before you go that direction.”

“It’ll be different at the rodeo,” she shot back. “I’ll be more pumped up!”

“It ain’t a matter of being pumped up,” he said. “You need more experience.”

Nevertheless, Maggie packed up her truck.

“You’re not ready,” he warned her. “It’s a matter of time. It’s not how — just when.”


III.

Nobody was talking in the chute at the Bennington Rodeo Grounds in Bennington, Kansas. Out of respect, cowboys working behind the scenes communicate nonverbally to give riders space and time as they await the uncertain fate of dancing with 2,000 pounds of fury.

Maggie inhaled deeply. Just then, a loud rumble erupted. “B12,” an enormous white bull named for a vitamin found in Red Bull energy drinks, among other places, was pushed up the alley toward the chute.

Maggie’s heart raced.

It was June 2012, not long after the rodeo in Ponca, and she was standing safely behind the gate, wearing a pair of black chaps with purple flames. Her ribs were still sore but nowhere near how bad they felt in Ponca. Ever since she’d left Gary’s ranch, Maggie had been riding bulls at a steady clip, entering rodeos across the country. She’d gotten up on maybe 50 bulls in all, by Gary’s estimation, far below the 100-bull mark he’d recommended she hit before trying to compete.

A bull rider atop a bucking bull.James Phifer/Rodeobum.com
Maggie Parker, pictured at the 2013 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, hit her stride in the year after she was injured. Her reputation, and the curiosity around the young, indefatigable female rider, was growing.

Climbing down into the chute and claiming her place atop B12, Maggie began her ritual. She tucked her left hand into the handle of her bull rope, and the chute workers began tightening it as the outdoor arena’s loudspeaker blasted Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Maggie tapped the rope with her free hand to signal, tight enough. She was so focused that she missed the announcer referring to her as a “little blonde-haired beauty.” Maggie nodded to tell the gate-puller, ready.

The gate swung open, and B12 lunged left, then right, kicking his hind legs over and over … 2 seconds … Maggie swung her free arm for balance … 5 seconds … Feverish bucking … 7 seconds … The crowd screamed … Finally, a loud beep signaled 8 seconds. She’d done it, reaching the threshold to score.

Maggie dismounted and walked casually back toward the chute.

“Everyone says, ‘Is she legit?!’” the announcer yelled. “I guarantee she’s legit!”

Maggie scored 70 points, finishing in sixth place. Her prize money: $190. The news traveled far and wide. “PRCA Woman bull rider makes history in Kansas,” read one headline. Maggie had achieved what Polly Reich only dreamed of. Journalists from as far away as England clamored for interviews. At least three documentary filmmakers reached out. Eventually, she would appear on The Steve Harvey Show.

From the summer of 2012 through the spring of 2013, Maggie competed at rodeos in at least nine states across the heartland. The towns and the crowds blended together. There was Edgewood, Iowa; Springdale, Arkansas; Hamel, Minnesota; Fort Worth, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; Hinton, Oklahoma; and back to Bennington, Kansas. Maggie did not place, but a number of the bulls scored higher than B12, which meant she was drawing tougher rides than before. Win or lose, added experience was a good thing. The sense of freedom from her earlier road trips remained, but it became coupled with a profound sense of purpose. Maggie called her mom, Susan, who decided to drive from Michigan to the next rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, in August. She was excited but nervous.

At the Cody Nite Rodeo, Maggie was determined to make her 8 seconds and earn more prize money. After bruising her ribs in Ponca and walking it off, she’d hit a stride. Performing through pain is what it means to be a bull rider. But so is hanging on at all costs.

A rider waves the American flag from atop a horse at the Cody Nite Rodeo, Wyoming.Andrew Woodley/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
The Cody Nite Rodeo is one of umpteen events on the bull-riding circuit. Most years, riders decamp in the spring and ride through the fall in search of fame and winnings, one 8-second ride at a time.

As Maggie launched out of the chute, she looked solid. But somehow, after a few seconds, she lost her rope and went flying into the air. Before the gate had even opened, the fans were already paying extra close attention. But once Maggie’s body contorted in mid-air, everyone knew it wasn’t going to be a soft landing. When she hit the ground, her neck and shoulders took the brunt of it. She remembers hearing a pop, but in the moment, she was so fixated on the bull that her mind didn’t yet register the pain. Maggie watched as the bull turned around in the distance, so she began frantically crawling toward the chute. The bull charged. The gate slammed shut just before the bull could impale her with his horns. Long after the gate closed, Maggie remained on the ground, unable to stand. The arena went silent.

“It’s broken!” shouted Maggie, “My back’s broken!”

As the medics strapped her onto a stretcher, the pain was unbearable.

At 3 am, she was transferred from the local ER to a hospital in Billings, Montana, where she underwent emergency surgery as Maggie’s mom waited anxiously. When Maggie finally came to, the surgeon visited her bedside, telling Maggie how lucky she was. She had suffered a burst fracture in her fourth thoracic vertebra. The injury required the insertion of two rods and eight screws. Had the impact been a few millimeters higher, she would’ve been paralyzed. Maybe it was the pain meds, but she didn’t sound fazed.

“I’m gonna ride again,” Maggie told everyone in the hospital who would listen. One of the nurses called Jonnie Jonckowski, a retired bull rider then in her late 50s, and told her about the brutally banged-up 20-year-old in recovery. Jonnie had ridden on the women’s circuit for years and was crowned champion in 1986 and 1988; later, she parlayed her toughness into a stint as a gladiator on the TV show American Gladiators. Jonnie visited Maggie in the hospital. Female bull riders deal with long-term health issues, she told Maggie; Jonnie knew women who, among other challenges, had trouble conceiving and carrying children. In her heart, Maggie knew she wanted to someday have five kids.

Jonnie sensed that Maggie would let nothing stand in her way.

“She’s got the same spunk I do,” Jonnie told a reporter from the Billings Gazette. “She’s gonna get up and twist ’em again. I’m certain of that.”

“I think it’s really important to let Maggie live her dreams,” Maggie’s mom told the reporter. “I’m not going to stop her.”

But what neither Susan nor Jonnie knew then was that four months later, Maggie would be pregnant.


IV.

There were too many cracks to count. The windows looked ancient. The door jambs were warping. Maggie knew that if she didn’t seal up the creaky old house for the winter, she’d be waking up before dawn with her face feeling numb and frozen. She’d endured frigid, sleepless nights here before, so she could tolerate it. But she wouldn’t subject Abilene Mae to such conditions. “Billie,” as Maggie called her, was nearly 3 months old, with blue eyes and blonde hair, just like her mama.

By October 2014, Maggie was living with her newborn daughter in a busted-down farmhouse with no heat or hot water on a ranch outside Tahlequah, Oklahoma. In 1839, the town became the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Locals say the name Tahlequah was inspired by the Cherokee phrase ta’ligwu, which translates to “two is enough.”

It was the same ranch where she had stayed a few years back while she was kick-starting her rodeo career. The owner, a stock contractor who’s been raising cattle since the 1960s, agreed to let his two guests live rent-free, provided they pay the electric bill. Ever since the gas line leaked, they shut it off. Maggie cooked with an electric skillet and warmed the house with plug-in heaters. To take a hot shower, she had to pack up Billie into her truck and drive two miles up the road.

Maggie enjoyed the autonomy of being a single parent. She took pride in changing every diaper and handling every bath. But caring for a baby was also physically and mentally exhausting in ways that traveling the country as a free-wheeling teenage bull rider was not.

Bull rider Maggie Parker wears a protective brace as she talks with neurosurgeon Richard Teff at St. Vincent Healthcare in Montana.Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette
The ride in Cody, Wyoming, broke Maggie Parker’s back when she was just 20, requiring two rods and eight screws to treat. “I’m gonna ride again,” she nevertheless decided.

Still, Maggie was happier to be there than where she came from. After her surgery in Montana, she eventually returned to her mom’s house in Michigan. On her 21st birthday, Maggie spent the day with a doctor who removed her staples — all 21 of them. Early in her recovery, the pain was unreal. In the middle of the night, Maggie would wake up shaking. Clenching her fists and legs, she’d pop 10 mg of Oxycodone and wait anxiously for the pill to make the pain wither away. Soon, Maggie was swallowing 100 mg a day. Her personality changed. She became curt and acerbic. That’s partly why living with her mom proved challenging. The other part is history.

Maggie and her mom had a complicated relationship, which wasn’t helped by her father’s suicide. While Susan grieved for her husband Bill, she raised two kids as a full-time, working single mother. All that stress and time away didn’t foster an air of stability. Reflecting on everything, Maggie confesses, “I never really felt like I had a family.” As Susan’s kids grew into teenagers, Maggie remembers having screaming matches with her mom and fighting with her older brother, Max. The siblings had little in common. While Maggie fell into rodeo, Max began rapping under the moniker Trax A Trillion and releasing songs like “86 Give a Fucks.”

Back home, as she recovered, Maggie struggled to reconnect with her family. As Susan listened to her daughter recount her adventures traversing America to ride bulls, she recalled her own decision to leave home at age 19 to hitchhike through Africa and Europe for four years. When Susan told that reporter in Billings that she would never want to quash Maggie’s dreams, she meant it. Susan remembered being young and free, and how that feeling faded away as the responsibilities of motherhood took over.

But it’s difficult to dream if you’re unable to sleep.

Earlier in her recovery, before she told her mom all about her travels, Maggie would lie in bed in the dark — alone and crying — feeling her baby kick. When she discovered she was pregnant, Maggie quit Oxycodone. If it weren’t for the baby, there was no telling how long her addiction might have lasted. Billie’s biological father was around less and less; their relationship imploded before the baby was born. Not long after, Maggie high-tailed it back to Oklahoma where she had rodeo friends and felt most at home. Home became a derelict house near Tahlequah, because two is enough.

When Billie was 2 months old, Maggie began barrel training, riding atop an oil drum attached to a long metal lever that simulates bucking. After every session, her thighs and groin ached in ways they never had before. Still, Maggie was determined to ride again. But life was just too complicated. Trying to hold onto both her dream and a baby, all by herself, seemed impossible. Even if she tried to ride at a rodeo, who would look after Billie Mae?

That winter, Maggie was desperate. She had made a deal with Billie’s biological father that if he stayed away, she wouldn’t seek child support. Without any immediate income, Maggie invested most of her savings into tools for leatherworking and learned how to fashion custom-engraved leather goods, which she planned to sell online. Unable to afford day care, she worked when the baby slept. While researching the craft, she emailed a well-known leatherworker in Texas. One phone call for advice stretched into a budding long-distance friendship.

Eventually, Britt Nantz invited Maggie to his home in Graham, Texas. He talked with her on the phone the whole drive to keep her from falling asleep at the wheel. He bought Billie a pony. That Christmas, when Maggie and Billie returned to Michigan for the holidays, the artistic cowboy with the honest eyes and bushy brown mustache sent flowers with a card: “It’s hard to find flowers in the tundra.”

In January 2015, Maggie and Billie moved to Graham to live with Britt. One of those first mornings, they played with Billie’s pony, which they’d named Taco. After placing Billie on Taco’s back, Maggie led the pony toward the house. “What are you doing?!” asked Britt, dumbfounded as mama, daughter, and Taco paraded through the front door into the living room. “Oh, I’m in so much trouble,” he thought to himself, smiling.

That summer, they married on the front porch. After the ceremony, Britt held Billie tight and kissed her head, as 22-year-old Maggie looked on, wearing a white lace sleeveless dress and cowboy boots and squeezing her bouquet.

Surveying their property, the couple envisioned several projects. Britt built Billie a play structure and swing set. When Maggie started talking about setting up an arena for riding practice bulls, Britt hopped onto a tractor, tilled the dirt, and dug postholes in 91-degree heat.

“I’d be an idiot not to worry,” Britt told Maggie. “But I’ll always support you chasing your dream.”

The truth was, back in Montana, when Maggie said, “I’m gonna ride again,” it wasn’t just the pain meds talking.


V.

“Are you willing to pay the price your freedom will cost you?” asks the voice on the television. Maggie is sitting on the living room couch with 19-month-old Billie in her lap. They’re watching a DVD of the Pixar movie Brave, in which a rebellious princess refuses an arranged marriage and unleashes a witch’s curse upon her mother, the queen. The princess embarks on a journey to make things right for her kingdom, her family, and herself.

But Maggie doesn’t catch that part. She is staring at her cellphone, scrolling through Muhammad Ali quotes. She stops to read one aloud: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

It is March 17, 2016, and a few hours from now, Maggie is committed to ride a bull at the Young County PRCA Rodeo in Graham, Texas. When the rodeo organizers post the schedule on their Facebook page, they advertise this special event: “Check out the female Bull Rider tonight!!!!” The news has been spreading through Graham, a town with a population of 8,745. The town’s 60-something pastor calls to ask if it is really true that Maggie would be riding a bull instead of a horse? “Well, good for you!” Pastor Charlie cries out, “We’re gonna be there cheering you on!”

In the corner of the living room, Britt is rocking in a chair, holding a bottle of milk in his right hand and a baby in his left. Jasper was born two months earlier. Britt gazes down at his son and cradles him gently. Behind them is an oval wooden plaque engraved with the words, “Courage is being scared to death & still saddling up.”

While Jasper’s birth was initially a cause of celebration for Maggie’s mom and brother, Jasper is now a big reason they are both intensely concerned about the rodeo. Two days ago, her brother Max posted photos on Facebook of his niece and nephew with the captions: “Who will take care of them?” and “Don’t let my mom ride a bull …” Maggie’s mom is beside herself. “She is in no shape to ride … She has not been on a bull of any sort since she broke her back 2.5 years ago,” Susan protests. “If she rides, she will certainly be injured.”

Maggie won’t return their calls or text messages, and she has blocked them on Facebook. She keeps remembering what the doctor who performed her surgery said: “Your back is stronger now than it was before because the rods are steel.” He advised that Maggie not ride for a year. She’s waited almost three.

Although Maggie knows full well that it’s only been two months since she gave birth, she hasn’t been inactive. Her workouts with Britt have been intense. Years ago, he worked as a personal trainer and became an expert in Seven-Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu (Britt says he can rip out an opponent’s throat with his bare hand just like Patrick Swayze in Road House). Under Britt’s guidance, Maggie has been following a regimen of circuit and interval training: push-ups, sit-ups, lunges, high knees, and running on a treadmill. She’s also been training on a barrel rig, which Britt built in their barn. When Maggie hops on, he raises the lever up and down so she can work on her form.

It’s difficult to say whether Maggie is where she should be, physically. She hasn’t been on a practice bull since giving birth to Jasper, and in that sense, her family’s anxiety and apprehension seem justified. Maggie has much more to lose than ever before. The misfit who once traversed America alone in her pickup now has a family with two kids and a husband — just like the family that eluded her when she was only 4. Although she never consciously chased the stability she didn’t have growing up, she found it in Britt. But none of that is enough to lay down her dream of riding again. Mentally, Maggie feels ready.

Part of her confidence is derived from Britt. “It really sunk in after I left Gary’s place,” she says. “You have to surround yourself with positive people if you want good things to happen in your life. Once you commit to it, you’ll notice that positive things do start to happen. The universe aligns for you.” A week earlier, Maggie and Britt enacted a ritual practiced by Bruce Lee: The couple wrote down all their negative thoughts on paper and burned them.

Their truck pulls into the parking lot outside the rodeo arena, and Maggie and Britt unload their two kids. As she carries a hockey bag with her gear, Maggie walks by an ambulance parked by the fire exit. She doesn’t blink or acknowledge the EMTs. Maggie says goodbye to her family and heads back behind the chute where the other riders are preparing. A lanky young man named Abraham strikes up a conversation. He’s nervous. She doesn’t recognize him or any of the other riders. Two years ago, Maggie knew most everybody on the circuit, but riders quickly cycle in and out, limping away broken and busted as new ones take their place. If Maggie were a man, her return to riding wouldn’t have been met with incredulity and claims of recklessness. Fathers ride bulls all the time, she says. Nobody questions it.

Taking a seat in the bleachers, Britt holds Jasper and Billie close. Before the announcer even says Maggie’s name, Britt’s legs are shaking. He squeezes his kids tighter.

Behind the chute, Maggie puts on her helmet and straps on her vest. Her heart races, just like she remembers. Climbing into the chute, she looks down at the bull. She has been here before. She may never be here again. You can only ride one bull at a time, Gary would probably remind her. I was laid up in the hospital many times wondering about my future, but always got back out there, Jonnie Jonckowski might say. You’re psychotic for even being there, Max would tell her. Think of your kids, her mom would plead. It’ll eat you from the inside out if you don’t do this, Britt would say.

But Maggie cannot hear any of those voices right now.

She lowers herself down onto the bull. The chute workers tighten her bull rope, and she taps to let them know it’s tight enough. She takes a deep, slow breath. Gary once said, “You just got to act as if you’re the person you want to be until you become it.”

Maggie nods.

The gate swings open.

Steven Leckart is a writer, director, and National Magazine Award finalist. His film credits include writing What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali, a two-part documentary on HBO. He also wrote and co-executive produced Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, a three-part documentary on Netflix.


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