A Woman On The Bull
Robin McElroy: Bull-busting babe

Her name is Robin. She has a problem. She likes it rough.

See also...
... by G. Patrick Pawling
... in the Scope section
... from December 9, 1999

Robin McElroy, 31, is a professional bull rider. That means she's unlucky in a couple ways. One, she happens to like a sport that hurts. Two, she's a woman, which means no matter how good she gets she'll always have to keep her day job.

For men, it's different. The men's side of bull riding is growing so fast that folks have taken to calling it the new NASCAR. Top male riders make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in a sport that's looking more and more mainstream -- thanks to TV coverage, sponsors like Anheuser-Busch, and fans that fill venues in unlikely spots like Cleveland, Ohio, and Worcester, Massachusetts. But the women's sport, to date, has not achieved that same level of success.

The women riders do it for love. It's all they have at this point. The only TV coverage they get is when a local station does a story, centered on how unusual it is for women to ride bulls. Compared to the men, there are only a handful of women who seriously ride bulls. If the women's side of this rough sport is growing, it's growing slowly. There just isn't enough money. No mercenaries here. Just hard-ridin' women.

McElroy finished fourth in the world this year, taking home about $1,200 in total winnings [editor's note: before this article went to press, McElroy won a $1,400 purse at the 1999 Women's National Finals Rodeo]. By contrast, a cowboy named Troy Dunn recently won $75,000 for finishing fourth in one event, the world championships in Las Vegas. Chris Shivers, a 5-foot-3 cowboy who is 19 but looks 14, collected more than $221,000 just for finishing fourth in the Bud Light Cup tour this year. When McElroy won a bull riding event in September of this year in Winslow, Arizona, her purse came to a measly $182.36. If nothing else, the money would probably come in handy to defray some of McElroy's medical expenses.

Few sports equal bull riding's potential for mayhem. Bulls weigh somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds. Imagine Michael Jordan 10 times stronger. That's the kind of leaping and twisting ability a great bull brings to rodeo. The rider's goal is to stay on for eight seconds, look good doing so, and stay alive -- probably in that order.

McElroy says the bulls women ride aren't quite as "rank" -- meaning they aren't as mean, big, and aggressive -- as the men's. But they can ruin your day just the same. McElroy has broken her left arm twice. Last year her face smashed against a bull's horn and was fractured in five places. Now there's a plate under her eye. "Other than that it's just a bump here and there," she says.

Good bull riders are great athletes. They tend to be small compared to most professional athletes -- and a lot less whiny -- but they're tough as leather and usually more intelligent. One bull rider has been known to observe that the sport is a battle of man against beast, "and may the best man win." In Robin's case, that man just might be a woman.

McElroy grew up around rodeo, but it wasn't until she went to a men's event five years ago that she really got interested. She wound up entering a ladies-only contest that was meant as halftime entertainment. She won. And she loved it -- the fear, the adrenaline, the challenge.

"I just know that when I get ready to get on a bull, from the minute I walk in to the arena my heart is beating fast," said McElroy. "The adrenaline rush is so intense I can't describe it to anybody. It's an adrenaline rush that you don't want to get over."

McElroy, who is single and works for a company that manufactures amusement park waterslides, said she'll keep riding those bad boys "as long as my body can hold up."

Let us pray...

G. Patrick Pawling got hooked -- figuratively, not with a bull's horns -- while doing a story on a bull riding boot camp for Life Magazine. Yes, he rode. Yes, he got bucked off before making eight seconds. And yes, he loved it.