LAS VEGAS — Jess Lockwood loved wrestling.
The sport appealed to his ranch work ethic.
Lockwood began wrestling at the age of five and continued until his was 16.
And he was good at it.
Lockwood won the Class B-C 103-pound state title as a freshman for Powder River County High School and was third at 113 pounds as a sophomore.
But for as much as he loved wrestling, another passion pulled even harder at his shirtsleeve.
So after his sophomore season, Lockwood gave up wrestling to focus on bull riding.
“It really wasn’t that tough a decision,” said Lockwood in mid-December. “I missed wrestling a little bit when it was that time of year. But I knew I had to focus on my bull riding.
“I think it worked out pretty well,’’ the 2017 Professional Bull Riders world champion finished with a chuckle. “I feel wrestling prepared me for bull riding. The work ethic you need to be successful.”
And while Lockwood took another career path, he was never that far away from wrestling. He followed the U.S. Olympic teams through social media and this past winter returned to the wrestling room at his former high school to help the Hawks.
“I like rolling around on the mats, helping the younger guys,” said Lockwood, still a taut 5-foot-5, 130 pounds. “I always wanted to help at Broadus and I had a little more time to do it.”
It was this past December when Lockwood got to meet his Olympic wrestling heroes.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” Lockwood said of sharing meals, meetings and mat time with the best wrestlers in the United States. “I’ve been watching them since seventh grade and now you get to meet them in person.”
The brainchild of Cody Bickley, the USA Wrestling National team’s high performance manager, Lockwood spent two days training with the USA Wrestling men’s national freestyle team in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The head coach of the men’s freestyle team is Bill Zadick of Great Falls.
The team didn’t bring in Lockwood for his wrestling skills — he was the smallest athlete in the room — but a chance for the top athletes from one sport to see the carriage of a world champion.
“That is more powerful,” Zadick told Justin Felisko of the PBR. “Similarities become more powerful because of what success looks like and how it connects people. The thing that I noticed about Jess in the few days being with him are there are a lot of strong similarities. The maturity. His competitiveness and the way he approaches his career is very striking. It is similar to our best athletes.”
Lockwood took a break from being at the National Finals Rodeo for sponsor responsibilities and watching his aunt Lisa Lockhart compete in barrel racing to attending the training session. The session featured not only the Olympic team, but some of the best freestyle wrestlers in the nation.
“They’re a really good group of guys,” said Lockwood. “They’re all very motivated.”
Freestyle wrestling, one of the Olympic disciplines, was something new for the 20-year-old bull riding superstar. High school wrestlers compete in folkstyle wrestling.
“Freestyle, I really didn’t know anything about it,” Lockwood continued. “It’s a lot of takedowns, a little defensive stuff. It’s different from high school wrestling.
“I just worked on perfecting the throws. When I do anything in any sport, I want to do it right.”
Lockwood said he worked out with some of the other wrestlers and some NCAA champions. His two days consisted of meals with the team, two two-hour practice sessions and hot and cold tub recovery sessions, along with team meetings.
At one of the meetings, the wrestlers watched Lockwood get knocked out by SweetPro’s Bruiser, selected the PBR and PRCA bull of the year for 2017. The ride drew a big reaction from the wrestlers.
Lockwood said he might take a few lessons from the wrestlers into his 2018 season.
“I might use some of the team imagery as a tool to improve,” he said. “And follow some of their training techniques … balance and workouts for your core.”
And Lockwood said if asked, he would gladly do it again.
“I hope too,” he said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.
“If I had to describe the experience, I would say, unbelievable, awesome.”