PUEBLO, Colo. – An unlikely ninja running mad over obstacles on NBC’s hit show “American Ninja Warrior” airing tonight is also one of the most unlikely riders in the PBR.
In fact, pursuing the non-conventional rules the multi-sport career of Venn Johns, who at 43 years of age is the oldest rider in the PBR, rides in the PBR’s Real Time Pain Relief Velocity Series.
Yet the career progression of an incredibly fit and tough man kicking sand in the face of father time is working just fine, and helps explain Dorian Gray youthfulness, allowing the Oklahoma native to continue to compete in one of the world’s grueling and physically punishing sports.
Johns grew up in gymnastics, practicing for six hours a day, six days a week starting when he was 11. He became a two-time all-American on full scholarship at the University of Oklahoma.
Following his gymnastics career, he earned black belts in karate and Brazilian ju jitsu. He fought in MMA, compiling a 15-3 record.
Working at a martial arts academy, Johns noticed a student always dressed in jeans and boots. Turns out the young man was a bull rider. Johns picked his brain, soaking in everything he could about the intriguing sport.
Heck, if Venn could learn quick and become a fighter, why not at 25 years old dive headfirst into another exciting extreme sport? He bought all the equipment described by the student, found a ranch that would indulge him, and began getting on bulls.
He rode the first four bulls he mounted.
“At the time, I believed I was riding Bodacious,” Johns said. “Now I look at the footage and see those bulls crow-hopping across the arena. But darn, if it wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever done.”
So much fun, why stop?
Johns met well-known PBR stock contractor Gene Owens, along with former PBR rider Paul Hixon. Both took a special interest in grooming the new rider. Owens would even allow Venn to get on practice bulls he kept at home.
But compared to practice, competition bulls would provide a rude – and painful – awakening.
At his first professional event, Johns got hung up, drug down, and stepped on. He’d need reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL and MCL.
He was back at it a few months later, then he took a nasty horn to the face. Four plates now form the left side of his facial structure.
Johns was a single dad with custody of his son. His battle plan was to use all the experience and benefits from his gymnastics and MMA training to ride bulls well and safely. And if he got cut up, it wasn’t anything a little superglue couldn’t fix.
Even with his extraordinary flexibility, core strength and body and air awareness (what to do when upside down can be the difference between life and death), he knew the bulls will ultimately win. Johns’ own father tragically died when he was seven, and he didn’t want his son, Tyler, to ever experience that heartbreak.
He retired from professional bull riding.
But kids don’t stay kids forever, Tyler grew up with Venn’s toughness and discipline, and he enlisted in the Marines. Three years ago, at 40, Johns began riding again.
“You see bull riding on TV, you watch it in person, but being in Las Vegas on a top caliber of bulls for an event like the ABBI finals in 2015 really elevates your confidence and sense of accomplishment,” Johns said. “To see the Top 35 riders as your peers and then hear them say you’re motivating them – usually with an old geezer joke thrown in – is special.”
But make no mistake, Johns is no variety act meant to amuse you. Getting on rank bulls is a stunt for only the foolish. He’s there to make the 8-second mark.
“Obviously I haven’t made World Finals,” Johns said. “But I do ride good bulls. I’m not just the old guy who has enough money to pay entry fees.”
While every rider wants to be world champion, Johns realizes that’s an unlikely outcome.
“Even if I didn’t attain that goal, the experience I have had over the last four years back from retirement has been an insanely exciting,” he said. “I’ve done awesome things in life in gymnastics and MMA but the experiences I’ve had in PBR are unparalleled.”
Johns hopes to add to those memories in being the oldest World Finals qualifier at 44, in November 2018. The oldest cowboy to compete for the title in Las Vegas was Gary Richards, at 42.
He believes his training in gymnastics, and MMA are a major reason for his longevity. He points to many in the new generation taking up yoga and combat sports training to gain an edge on increasingly difficult bulls and possibly lengthen their own careers.
Of course, a few throwback standouts like J.B. Mauney, who acknowledges he once passed through a gym back in high school, might not follow that route.
At last year’s World Finals (Johns has attended as a fan the past ten years), J.B. playfully punched Venn in the chest.
“I hate looking at your Instagram, because it wears me out,” the two-time World Champion said. “You work out way too much.”
Mauney then rubbed his own chest.
“You know what this is?” he asks. “That’s aerodynamics.”
In Denver, among 130 American Ninja Warrior competitors, Johns will compete with men 20 years younger.
The NBC producers have had fire fighters and crossfit experts on the show, but were especially intrigued to find a bundle of energy over 40 years old in top shape with success in three different sports on his resume.
To simulate the kind of difficult obstacles he’d face in the sunset-to-sunrise competition in City Center Park, Johns trained in specialized gyms in Houston, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Springfield, Missouri.
He plans to open his own ninja gym in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he lives. The facility, next to a ju jitsu center, will cater to kids aspiring to be American Ninja Warriors. It will have obstacles like warped walls, cliff hanger (a simulated rock climbing wall), and wing nuts, a challenge new to the show’s ninth season.
In the meantime, Johns has his sights set on PBR in Las Vegas. After a few PBR Touring Pro Division events, he’ll next compete at a Velocity Tour event at Santa Barbara, California, on August 3.
The plan is to make the Velocity Tour Finals on Oct. 28-30, ride well and vault into the Built Ford Tough World Finals.
“Someone’s always going to be faster, younger, stronger, better,” Johns said. “But like Bruce Lee said, be like water. You can flow loosely or have all the power of the ocean.”
Ever since he was a 12-year-old gymnast introduced to the life-changing book “Psycho Cybernetics,” Venns has been practicing mental imagery.
“It’s important to never get restricted by limits you put into your own mind. So I ride bulls in my mind. It turns out I’m riding bulls every day,” he said.
Wouldn’t it be marvelous if in November, Johns transfers the recurring triumphant images in his head to real 8-second rides in the arena, and scores his way right into PBR history?
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