Jonnie Jonckowski didn’t meekly break down gender barriers in the ever dangerous sport of bull riding, she brazenly rode through obstacles en route to becoming a Hall of Fame pioneer in the male-dominated rodeo arena.
Now the retired Jonckowski wants to see more doors open in the sport for women, and her dream is being revived through athletes like Najiah Knight, the 17-year-old who is trying to make it to the highest level of the all-male Professional Bull Riders tour.
“Let them girls perform,” Jonckowski said. “They’re not going to play tackle football in the NFL, but some of them gals are damn tough and they’re damn athletic and they can really shine on their own platform.”
That embodies the fiery Jonckowski’s career, which included women’s bull riding championships in 1986 and 1988 but ended before the PBR was launched in 1992.
Bull riding, though, wasn’t her first athletic goal.
Jonckowski achieved success on the track at Division III Eastern Montana College, reaching the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials with high hopes of qualifying for the Montreal Games. But Jonckowski clipped a hurdle in a qualifying heat and injured her back.
Her Olympic dreams were dashed in a flash — and so was her track and field career.
“I was at like 21, 22 years old going, ‘What the heck am I going to do now?’” Jonckowski said. “I really didn’t see four more years in my future of training.”
What she did see upon returning to Montana was a poster about a rodeo that changed her life and set her on an historic path to becoming the first professional female bull rider.
Jonckowski had some experience as a youngster working on ranches, so she thought rodeoing would be worth a shot. She walked into a bar, met someone who knew a thing or two about riding bareback broncos and convinced him to train her.
“I was too naive,” said Jonckowski, 69. “I didn’t even know it was dangerous. I found out pretty quickly how bad it can be. It’s great when it’s great, but boy when it’s bad, it’s really bad.”
She once had her nose just about fall off after getting kicked by a bull between her eyes. A plastic surgeon’s convention was taking place nearby, and Jonckowski said she was able to get a procedure done to reset her nose.
“There were women in rodeo a long time ago, but when Jonnie Jonckowski wanted to get into it, there weren’t a lot of competitive opportunities for women riders,” nine-time world champion Ty Murray said. “She had to knock down doors everywhere she turned.”
Jonckowski also worked as an advocate for female riders like Knight, but when she retired from that work after 23 years, the momentum for women in rodeo waned.
While Knight is trying to get to the top, Jonckowski has shown what a woman can achieve in the sport when given the chance, even going from the broncs to the bulls and believing from the beginning she would succeed.
“I seriously thought I was a good enough athlete that I could win a world title in a year or two, I really did,” Jonckowski said. “There were some great riding girls out there. There were about a dozen of them that can give a lot of guys a run for their money, but I still thought I could beat them.”
And she didn’t want any special treatment.
When entering rodeos, she went with her nickname “Jonnie” rather than given name “Lynn.”
Jonckowski said a lot of the rodeo promoters would use her for marketing.
“The announcer would make a big deal, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got a gal here in the stands who thinks she can ride anything you run.’ And, of course, the crowd would stick around and watch one last ride of a gal trying to ride a bull, so that’s where I got most of my practice,” she said.
Capturing her two women’s championships and breaking through gender barriers earned Jonckowski induction in 1991 into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
“Jonnie’s guts and try were definitely something special,” Murray said. “There aren’t many humans who would want to do what she did, let alone women. … It’s inspiring for everyone to see a girl that passionate and resilient who goes after her dream no matter the danger or what other people say or think.”