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 from around the world reach the top. It takes time, travel, money and, perhaps most of all, guts. The sport is undeniably 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 in the chute 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. “I’m just trying to stay on and grit it out.”
In bull riding, athletes try to stay on the bucking animal for eight seconds while keeping one hand in the air. It’s violent and chaotic. Riders cannot touch the bull with their free hand. If eight seconds is achieved, both bull and rider are scored, with 100 points being the highest — though rarely given — total.
Like many of the teens that day, Najiah fell in just a couple of seconds. But she’d get another chance.
“NO TAMING THAT FIRE”
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. There’s a gas station, a small grocery, a hardware store and the Big River Pizza & Grill, with the motto “Eat, Drink and Smile.”
Najiah plays volleyball and basketball for Arlington High, which fields combined teams with a nearby school because both are so tiny. 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, even when she dragged them to the ground.”
Her mom, Missi, saw it, too. “There was no taming that fire,” she said.
Andrew is also a bull rider, and Missi wanted to be able to treat either in case of injury. So she trained as an EMT, and it’s become her career.
When Najiah was 7, she started riding steers. At 9, she was on miniature bulls — and getting attention. 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 at Madison Square Garden, in New York. And in the third round, she beat all the boys.
The next year, Najiah broke her arm — she didn’t want to believe it happened, but Missi could tell, thanks to her training. It’s been one of just a few injuries, and it sidelined Najiah for the junior finals. So did the COVID-19 pandemic. But for some two years now, she has been riding junior bulls — a step below the big bulls. She finished in the top three in her region this year to earn her spot in the Junior World Finals.
At home, after volleyball practice, Najiah trains with Andrew in the driveway, on 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. So his motto is one of positivity.
He jokes with Najiah before she rides to keep her loose, but once she’s in the chute, he turns to encouragement.
“You’ve got this,” he tells her.
“THE PERFECT RIDE”
In Las Vegas, two days after her first ride, Najiah got her second attempt in the Junior World Finals.
She stretched and did a little circular dance with her legs bowed. She knelt in prayer. With her dad, she readied for the ride — the duo able to communicate without speaking as Najiah pulled her rope on her bull in line for the chutes.
She nodded, motivated as always. But again, she was tossed by the bull after a few seconds — well short of eight. She wouldn’t make the final round.
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. “You always have it next time.”
Najiah is as direct as ever 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, no matter what happens, is a step toward that goal.
In getting there, Najiah and her family have been strategic in promoting her, with an eye on the long game. They’ve cultivated her image on social media and courted key sponsorships to help pay for rodeo entry fees and travel. Events that count toward qualifying in her region have taken her to North Dakota, Idaho, California, Colorado and Wyoming just this year.
Najiah has deals with Cooper Tires and Ariat, the boot and clothing maker, among others. She was the first mini bull rider Ariat sponsored; in the fall, she traveled to Texas for a photoshoot with the company.
A condition of her sponsorships is maintaining good grades. She has a 4.0 GPA and is a member of the National Honor Society. She hopes to attend the University of Oregon, even while trying to reach the Unleash the Beast tour.
Not much scares Najiah. At a mini bull competition in Louisiana, a bull stepped on her, cracking her helmet and sending blood streaming down her face. But she had another ride to go, so she borrowed a helmet and got right back on.
Everyone from experienced riders to casual fans can see Najiah’s passion, drive and fearlessness. But it’s hard to say how feasible her dream is, according to fellow riders and league officials.
“There is the hopeful side of me that wants her to be a world champion in the next five or six years,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said. “I think I’m a fairly optimistic guy, and so 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 that wants to be a top-level professional bull rider — but I honestly don’t believe that it’s any higher for her than it is for any other person her age, regardless of gender.”
“THE ONLY GIRL”
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 for 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. In Vegas, she and Missi both wore moccasins made by an aunt. Outside the arena, Najiah is active, 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, even though rodeo is a popular sport in Native American communities.
Najiah looks to women like bull riding pioneer Jonnie Jonckowski as inspiration. Going forward and working off that foundation, Najiah has the potential to bring more fans and attention to bull riding — much as the sensation Danica Patrick brought to auto racing.
Other girls who ride, or aspire to ride, are taking notice, too.
Blayklee Glass, 12, reached the finals in Las Vegas, placing seventh in her age group. She said she admires Najiah. And like Najiah, she’s content competing against boys.
“They’re like, ‘So what, you’re a girl,’” said Blayklee, of Prescott, Arkansas. “I like being the only girl.”
For Najiah, the Vegas competition hasn’t swayed her drive or derailed her dream. When she turns 18, she expects to compete on the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour. From there, she’ll work to earn the points needed 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. She insists she has what it takes: the passion, the nerve, the confidence, the focus.
“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.
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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