Five women defy stereotypical roles to drive, kick, butt, punch, and race their way through gender barriers in sports.
by Shauna Stephenson
When Vanessa Hodgson steps onto the back of a bull, everything around her fades out.
“It kind of feels like time stops,” she says. “You forget everything that is going on. You just focus on you and the bull. Everything is totally still, like you’re on pause.”
As one of the few female professional bull riders, she lives her life in eight-second intervals. She jumps from rodeo to rodeo, working, riding, and sometimes training horses at her Niles, Michigan, home. At age 25, she’s not one to go on at length about much of anything. But don’t be fooled: Vanessa’s got drive.
When asked about her personality, Vanessa’s husband, Derek, says she’s “pretty outgoing and pretty independent,” which seems relatively evident as she competes in one of the most male-dominated sports on the face of the planet. He says watching her ride brings on a “mixture of excitement and nervousness all at the same time.”
Since her debut on the back of the beast, Vanessa has made great strides in her quest to become the best female bull rider in the world.
Q. What was it like when you first started riding professionally?
A. It was kind of stressful—trying to be focused on riding and then hearing the guys in the background saying stuff like, “Girls shouldn’t be riding. They should be in the kitchen cooking the beef instead of riding it.” You know, you just gotta tune that out, just not worry about them, and do your thing. Just get better and show them you’re here and you’re going to stay here.
Q. You know the old saying, “A woman trying to make her way in a man’s world.” Do you think that still applies in 2009?
A. Yes, most definitely. I think men are just stuck in their ways. A lot of guys don’t approve of a woman doing a man’s sport. That’s how guys are. That’s how they’re raised.
Q. Worst ride?
A. Back in ’03, I rode this little bull just before the whistle. I fell off and fell underneath him. I don’t know if he was trying to be mean or just trying to look to see what I was, but it felt like he was trying to hook me, rub me into the dirt, break a bunch of ribs, and catch my back out of whack. It was pretty painful. I was pretty scared. It was a pretty dangerous situation.
Q. Why do you stick with it?
A. I like the challenge, I would say. I don’t know—I just love it. It’s just something I have always wanted to do. Some people are shopaholics, you know? It’s their passion. It’s what they like to do. And bull riding … it just draws me.
Two rainbows foreshadowed the night that Katie Hnida made history. Two rainbows. Two points. Clad in the colors of the University of New Mexico, Katie became the first woman to score in a Division I college football game.
But the road to that moment was a bumpy one. Katie made national news when she went to kick for the University of Colorado’s football team out of high school. But while at CU, she was subject to verbal and sexual harassment and was raped by one of her teammates, which still haunts her, but even that couldn’t keep her away from football. Katie went on to play at UNM and most recently with the semiprofessional Colorado Cobras.
“When I’m kicking, or in game situations, or sometimes when I’m just out practicing, I usually transport to somewhere else,” she says. “It actually is a great thing, because when I’m pissed off or angry, I can go out and kick. Almost like kicking re-centers me … the time I feel the most like Katie is when I’m kicking.”
“She’s got a great leg and she’s really accurate,” says Cobras coach Lou Florez. “People tend to have problems in life and they tend to kind of throw in the towel pretty easily. You look at the adversity she went through, and for her to come back out on the football field, that speaks volumes of her character.”
Katie says that, with all that happened in college, she was never quite able to reach her potential, and she wants to continue her football career.
“You just realize that these dreams, these things that you feel like you are meant to do, don’t follow any clock,” she says. “You know, life is really yours to decide what you want.”
Q. How do you move beyond what happened to you at CU?
A. It’s been a lot of work. I was talking about how the football field is this place I go and center myself; it’s the thing I love more than anything. It was a safe, great place for me. And while I was at CU, the football field turned into a place I was scared of and scared to walk onto. Being at New Mexico helped a lot. My last experience, with that semipro team, helped even more. It’s kind of been baby steps.
Q. You led a relatively sheltered life before going to college. How did you survive those first few weeks?
A. Really, when I got tossed into CU, it was just pure survival mode. My body switched into kind of a fight-or-flight mode and you just do whatever it takes to survive. I was trying to figure out an awful lot. Here I was in this world where suddenly the high school next door (Columbine) got shot out and people got killed. That made no sense. As a fresh 18-year-old kid, I didn’t know what the hell was going on, to be honest.
Q. Why did you stick with it?
A. There was no way I was going to let those people who felt like I shouldn’t be out there dictate me not following through with something that I loved and I knew. In a way I felt like kicking was absolutely my human right and that nobody should be able to take that away from me by harassing me or sexually assaulting me.
Q. If you had it all to do again, would you do it?
A. In a second.
Q. Of all the people we’re interviewing for this, everyone seems so fearless. What actually scares you?
A. Are you kidding? I’m scared of everything. The idea of walking onto the field with a bunch of big guys scares the living crap out of me. It’s so important for people to know it’s totally not about being fearless—it’s about pulling that courage out and taking the risk. There have been so many times when I’ve been just scared to death.
“Besides my faith in God, I found my salvation in a gym and athletics, which helped me deal with all the trauma life brought,” Kelsey says.
After starting out kickboxing, she found a coach and was introduced in the boxing ring, where she now fights as one of the most experienced female boxers in the country.
“I developed a dream, a dream to be the best,” she says. “Whatever that means is still probably undetermined. Kelsey’s best, whatever best is—I’m still achieving that.”
Now in California, Kelsey, 33, splits her time between training, working as an on-call firefighter, and being a full-time student at Gavilan College, where she’s studying to be a nurse. She holds seven featherweight and bantamweight titles and four Fighter of the Year titles. Known by her ring moniker, “The Road Warrior,” there’s no doubt Kelsey is one tough chick.
“I bust my ass and I’m real, you know?” she says. “I ain’t bullshit. I’m real.”
Q. Where does your drive come from?
A. I think some people are just made to be determined, and luckily, as weird as it sounds, my family life made me this way. It’s like me against the world, and I either got to get up and do it or just be pushed to the side and never achieve anything. That’s not going to happen: I’m determined to be the best.
Q. How do you balance boxing with the rest of your life?
A. I think the harder it gets for me, the easier it is. I gotta study. I gotta train. You just gotta prioritize. You set your mind to anything and you can do it. It’s tough, but you can do it.
Q. How do you endure pain?
A. I don’t know if it’s just personality or mind-set, but the harder it is, the tougher it is, the more I love it—the more I push myself to death. I train so hard so that, when the fight comes, it’s a cakewalk. I just love a war. I love it when everything is against me in a fight. I’m an underdog. You can’t win unless you knock the girl out, you know.
Q. Talk about the adversity you have faced.
A. You’re a young girl. You got no direction. No mother, no father to tell you how to be a woman, how to be a person in the world. You have to learn that on your own. You feel like everything is against you. You want to go to school, but you don’t got the money. You want to be the best, but you don’t got the money to get the best trainer and train in the best places. And it’s just hard, because sometimes fighting is all about who you know and what you got. And if you don’t know nobody, you don’t got no money, then you’re never gonna be nothing. For some reason I was very fortunate to get as many fights as I have.
There’s no such thing as a friend on the track. Rosemary Homeister learned this lesson a long time ago.
“I’m very competitive, and you have to be in this kind of sport, because it’s so demanding—mentally and physically demanding,” she says. “And if you can’t handle the pressure, then you might as well not even be a jockey.”
Known for her signature kiss to the camera, a signal to her grandparents, Rosemary has more than 2,000 wins under her belt and is just the fifth woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. One of the top female jockeys in the country, Rosemary says this career was bred into her, so to speak: Both her mother and father raced. Her mother eventually became a trainer, and Rosemary grew up on the track.
“Everything I did every day had to do with horses,” she says. “I didn’t have a bicycle; I had a horse. I didn’t have a lot of toys. My plaything was my pony.”
After making it to the Kentucky Derby, she retired for 18 months to focus on having a family and her budding career in real estate. But things fell apart, and she had to decide her next move.
“I left my husband and decided I am not going to sit in an office and work an eight-to-five job. I just can’t,” she says.
So she returned to her career in racing, picking up speed as she went.
Q. At the end of 2008, you hit your 2,000th career win. What was that like?
A. When I got the call saying you only have 20 more wins to 2,000, I couldn’t even believe it. I was like, Oh my god! That’s a lot of wins. I didn’t even think I was close to anything like that. So when I finally got down to my last 10, I’m like, no problem. Piece of cake. And let me tell you, those were the longest 10 wins. I think it took me eight weeks to get my 10th win. So when I hit the 2,000 mark, it was like I’d won the Kentucky Derby or something. It was just an awesome feeling. Once I hit that mark, I just started winning like crazy.
Q. What’s most demanding about your career?
A. Well, for me, the first challenge is being a woman in the sport. This still is, and always will be, a male-dominated sport and you’re always going to have the old-timers or men that say, “I don’t want a girl on my horse.” So you have to figure out a way to get over that hurdle. Constantly, you have to prove yourself. It’s the same for men too, but more so for women, because every single race, every single day, we have to prove that we are strong enough and that we can do the same job as a male rider.
Q. What was the Kentucky Derby like?
A. Awesome! There are no words to describe it. That was probably the most memorable and the greatest experience of my entire racing career. Of all of my wins, stake races, it was just incredible. Being in Churchill that week is like true horse racing. It’s what we’re here for, why we ride and work so hard every day—to get to that milestone.
Barbara Heggie hears the same things from her father’s mouth before every race. At the tunnel he tells her to watch the lights. After that he tells her about the competition. By the start line, he tells her to watch the top of the track. But he never wishes his 28-year-old dragster daughter luck.
“There’s no such thing as luck,” he says. “We make our own luck.”
“I know that sounds very superstitious, but that’s the way we are,” says Barbara’s mother, Debbie, aka Pit Mom.
Barbara took up racing at 16, an age at which most teens are giving their parents heart attacks in the passenger seat of the family sedan. Her racing education began with the family’s 1968 Camaro, at the suggestion of a family friend. Back then they were pushing about 90 miles per hour on the quarter mile. Today Barbara rips up the track at a blazing 170 miles per hour with her rear-engine dragster.
“After you do it a few times, a second doesn’t seem as fast,” she says. And the thrill of one-hundredth of a second? “After every single race, I can still get out of my car and my adrenaline is going so much it gives me the shakes.”
But her time on the track hasn’t been without personal challenges, says her mother. “A lot of men tend to look down on her because it’s kind of a man’s sport,” Debbie says. “They don’t like being beat by a girl.”
Q. Why drag racing?
A. I guess the best way to put it is, I’m an adrenaline junkie. I love the feeling of it. I love everything about the sport. It’s my family time. It’s my time to go out and do something I love.
Q. What does it feel like to go that fast?
A. You know that feeling when your ride a roller-coaster? You know that tickle in your stomach that you get? That’s the feeling I get every time I get in the car.
Q. You say this sport is drawing more women. Why do you think that is?
A. I think that women are becoming more adventurous. They want to get into these different sports and they want to try new things.
Q. What goes through your mind at the start line?
A. To be honest with you, when I pull up to the staging line, I kind of try to clear my head. After I leave the line is when I start thinking: Is my car too slow? Is my car too fast? What is the other guy doing? I’m looking back and forth at the competitor, and I base myself off of him. And I just wait to see the win light at the end of the track.
Q. How long will you continue racing?
A. Forever if I can. I would love to do this the rest of my life.