COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- When the U.S. men’s freestyle wrestling team hit the mat on Tuesday for its 9 a.m. practice at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, nothing looked different. All participants ran through warm-ups and drills, worked on techniques with a partner and gathered around head coach Bill Zadick as he gave demonstrations and pointers.
But one of the athletes at practice was not a national team member. Though Jess Lockwood is a world champion, his accolades have come in bull riding.
Not only is Lockwood a world champion, he’s the youngest world champion in Professional Bull Riders history at age 20, just a year after being named PBR’s rookie of the year. He caught the eye of Cody Bickley, USA Wrestling’s National Teams High Performance Manager, who discovered that Lockwood wrestled from age 5 until he was 16. Bickley put the plan in motion, and Lockwood jumped at the opportunity to get on the mat with Team USA.
“This is incredible, to say the least,” Lockwood said. “This is the coolest thing ever.”
Lockwood arrived in Colorado Springs on Sunday night and spent two days training with the team. Days involved practice from 9-11 a.m., followed by strength and conditioning and some time spent in recovery. Then comes a nap before another practice from 4-6 p.m.
When he’s at home in Montana, Lockwood spends most of his days working on his family’s property and helps coach the local wrestling team. He normally spends about an hour a day working out and, after two days with the national team, was feeling the grind of the wrestling life.
“Wrestling’s tough,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s only two days, so I can tough it through that!”
Lockwood is no stranger to toughing things out. Prior to his world championship win in November, he battled back from a litany of injuries including broken ribs, a punctured lung and a lacerated kidney. He credits his wrestling background to enhancing his mental toughness, a fact that wasn’t lost on the wrestlers he joined on the mat.
“He put in years of work and wrestling is a really hard sport, really hard on your body,” said Zach Rey. “Anybody that’s wrestled that long, you immediately have a relationship with him because you know what they’ve gone through.”
Rey, a member of the 2015 world championship team and No. 2 in the country at 125 kg., spent time with Lockwood during breaks in the action at practice. The two would sit together and talk quietly, forming a bond based on mutual respect.
“Anybody that’s the best in the world at what they do is somebody to ask questions to. ‘Cause that’s completely out of our element,” Rey said. “I’ve never met a bull rider before, I’ve never seen bull riding before up close and personal, and that’s an intense sport. So just chatting with him is really cool.”
While Lockwood met numerous wrestlers, the one he was most excited to spend time with was David Taylor. Lockwood discovered Taylor as seventh grader when Taylor was wrestling for Penn State University, where he was a two-time NCAA champion, and has followed his career ever since.
When the morning practice was over, the two traded T-shirts – Lockwood wearing a USA Wrestling world champion shirt, Taylor wearing a Jess Lockwood world champion shirt – and split off to have a one-on-one conversation.
“Crazy. I’m starstruck,” Lockwood said, a grin splitting his face after meeting his idol.
Taylor was flattered to discover that he’s Lockwood’s wrestling hero. A Wyoming native, he used to rodeo and ride steers when he was growing up.
“It’s kind of cool that I can relate, on a much smaller scale, to what he’s doing,” Taylor said. “I remember how hard it was to ride a steer, let alone a ginormous bull. I definitely have a ton of respect for him. It’s pretty remarkable how young he is and how successful he is, how humble he is. It’s really cool.”
While Lockwood was able to hold his own during drills, his wrestling skills were admittedly rusty as he hadn’t wrestled in three years. Though his wrestling ability could draw some critiques, Rey was quick to respect the duality of his skills.
“He can do what we do better than we could do what he does,” Rey said. “You put me on a bull, jeez, I’m in trouble the first half a second. He can run around with us and drill with us and look the part and do the job. Us on a bull? That sounds like an injury.”
Lockwood, however, had a different opinion.
“I’m sure they could if they put their mind to it,” he said with a smile. “I guarantee they could.”
(L-R) USA Wrestling National Teams High Performance Manager Cody Bickley, wrestler David Taylor, PBR world champion Jess Lockwood and U.S. men's freestyle team head coach Bill Zadick pose after practice at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on Dec. 12, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colo.