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Bull rider Najiah Knight looks at neon lights showing a bull in an Ariat store, one of her current sponsors, in the Fort Worth Stockyards, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas. Najiah, a high school junior from small-town Oregon, is on a yearslong quest to become the first woman to compete at the top level of the Professional Bull Riders tour. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
ANNE M. PETERSON AP Sports Writer
Published: 27 December 2023

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Najiah Knight drops her 100-pound frame onto a snorting 1,300-pound bull and adjusts her ropes, warming the sticky rosin. Music blares across the arena, but Najiah can hear only her dad, in the chute with her, and her mom, cheering from the stands. She nods to indicate she’s ready, and a cowboy pulls the door of the chute.

The gate swings open, and Najiah — a 17-year-old gladiator entering a ring where men rule — begins her dance with the bull.

Najiah, a high school junior from small-town Oregon, is on a yearslong quest to become the first woman to compete at the top level of the Professional Bull Riders tour. She can’t join until next year, when she’s 18, and even then, she’ll have to prove she’s good enough to qualify. There’s fierce competition: Only about 30 of the best riders globally reach the top. It takes time, travel, money and, perhaps most of all, guts. The sport is dangerous, with riders frequently injured and even killed.

None of that fazes Najiah. If there’s one quality she doesn’t have, it’s fear.

“Since I was a little kid, 3 years old, I would tell my dad that this is what I’m gonna do,” she said. “I’m going to be a bull rider. I’m going to make it. As I got older, it was ‘I’m going to be in the PBR, I’m going to be the first girl.’

“That is my why. That is my drive,” said Najiah, the only woman to qualify in the 16-18 age division for this month’s Junior World Finals in Las Vegas.

There, wearing a helmet and mouthpiece, she made adjustments to the rope circling her bull. She threw her hips forward. Then came the nod — go time. In that moment, there’s no emotion, just focus.

“You’ve got to be in the game, you’ve got to follow the bull,” Najiah said.

Bull riders try to stay on the bucking animal for eight seconds, one hand in the air. It’s violent and chaotic. If eight seconds is achieved, both bull and rider are scored.

Like many of the teens that day, Najiah fell in just a couple seconds. But she’d get another chance.

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Back home, Najiah is more typical teenager than rodeo star. She lives on the outskirts of Arlington, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of 628 people along Interstate 84, which cuts across Oregon.

Najiah plays volleyball and basketball for Arlington High, which fields combined teams with a nearby school. You’d never know from looking at her how tough she is, her coach says. But her parents realized from that start that their girl was fearless.

At age 3, Andrew Knight said, Najiah started riding sheep — known as mutton busting. “It was like she had velcro pants on, and she’d stick to them,” he said with a laugh. “There was not an inch of movement budging her off.”

As her mom, Missi, put it: “There was no taming that fire.”

When Najiah was 7, she started riding steers. At 9, she was on miniature bulls. From 2018 to 2020, she was ranked among the country’s top 15 mini bull riders. In 2020, she was the first girl to ride New York's Madison Square Garden. In the third round, she beat all the boys.

A broken arm and the pandemic sidelined Najiah for a bit. But for about two years, she's been riding junior bulls — a step below the big bulls.

At home, Najiah trains with Andrew in the driveway, a barrel set up with springs and levers to simulate a bull ride. He rides a fine line between coach and dad. If he feels fear, he said, his daughter will, too. His motto is one of positivity.

___

In Vegas, two days after her first ride, Najiah got her second attempt in the Junior World Finals.

With her dad, she readied for the ride — the duo able to communicate without speaking. She nodded, motivated as always.

But again, she was tossed by the bull short of eight seconds. She was disappointed, but not discouraged.

“I wanted it to go perfectly, just the perfect ride, but it doesn’t always go that way,” she said.

Najiah is direct about what she wants to accomplish: Be the first woman on PBR’s top-level tour, Unleash The Beast; be named Rookie of the Year; and win a world championship. Every ride is a step toward that goal.

Najiah and her family have been strategic in her promotion. They’ve cultivated her social-media image and courted key sponsorships — she has deals with Cooper Tires and Ariat, the boot and clothing maker.

Everyone from experienced riders to casual fans can see Najiah’s passion and fearlessness. But it’s hard to say how feasible her dream is, fellow riders and league officials say.

“There is the hopeful side of me that wants her to be a world champion,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said. “I believe that anything is possible for her. She’s been committed. She’s been working at it for a long, long time.

“But it’s a very difficult sport. The hill to climb is high for anybody.”

___

Najiah doesn’t see her gender as an obstacle. “I’m just a bull rider,” she often says with a shrug.

But she also wants to be a role model for women and Native Americans. Najiah and her family are Paiute, part of the Klamath Tribes, and she proudly wears a beaded hat band and necklaces before she rides. She's active outside the arena, too — last year, she appeared at a Ride to the Polls event to encourage young Navajo voters in Kayenta, Arizona.

“I’m pretty sure I’m the only woman Native bull rider that I know,” she said.

The Vegas competition hasn’t swayed her. When she turns 18, she expects to compete on the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour. From there, she’ll work toward needed points for the top level.

Najiah — and her family, the league and her sponsors — know it’s a long road. She long ago accepted the danger of the sport and the challenge to make it to the top.

“I don’t care about what anyone else thinks," she said. "I do this for me.”

___

AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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This story is part of the AP’s Inclusive Journalism Initiative with The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting.

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