"White Mountain Apaches Reflecting on 92 years of History, Culture & Pride"
Austin, Texas - Mark Swingler got his start fighting bulls in much the same way the professionitself got its start: out of necessity. As cowboys hopped on the backs of bulls, their buddies stepped up to ensure their safety and give them a way out of the arena.
Swingler rode bulls competitively throughout high school and college, fighting bulls as he was needed when he and his friends were in the practice pen. He bought his PRCA bull fighter card, but a new love was quickly taking root in Swingler - a love of entertaining the crowd while still protecting the riders.
“I got my card in 1993 and actually fought bulls my first year in the PRCA, but I started incorporating more acts and enjoying that a lot more,” Swingler says, and adds with a laugh that it was with age that the time came to hang up his cleats.
What he really did was trade the cleats for a host of crowd-pleasing tricks and a job as a specialty act or barrelman.
In the years since, Swingler has made a career, and a life, of blending professional rodeo with laughter. His quick-witted humor and unparalleled barrel-handling skills have earned him a reputation as one of the best in the business. He has been nominated repeatedly for PRCA’s annual awards in the categories of Comedy Act of the Year, Clown of the Year, and Coors Man in the Can – the last of which is decided by rodeo judges and bull riders and is based on the barrelman’s effectiveness at protecting both bull riders and fellow bull fighters. It’s a task Swingler takes a lot of pride in.
“The barrelman part is something that, being a bull rider and a bull fighter, I have quite a bit of advantage over guys that never rode or fought bulls, because I know exactly what’s going on in everyone’s mind,” he says and cites protecting the riders as a team effort. “While we are there forentertainment, I do take [protecting others] seriously. I’ll pack it in on a wreck and position that barrel where we need to be, especially in these big arenas where we can protect not only the bull rider, but the bull fighter.”
It was at a recent rodeo Swingler recalls where a bull fighter got thrown in the air, and thankfull Swingler was where he needed to be with the barrel to take the follow up hit by the bull in place of the fallen bull fighter. But Swingler also shines outside of the barrel as a comedian and entertainer. The act that paved the way for his success in the sport involved a cast of characters from a cowboy and a cop, to a fugitive disguised as an Indian and a construction worker, all parading around the arena and taking the audience by surprise when the group broke into the YMCA routine.
“You’ve got your players right in front of you and nobody sees it coming, and that’s what’s fun. It’s like a big hand coming around and slapping them in the face, so it’s kind of neat,” Swingler says of the act’s surprise factor that never fails to delight the crowd.
Swingler’s success has allowed him to experience his favorite job perk, traveling.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere in this country that I can go where I don’t know someone within 100-200 miles max. I’ve worked in every state except Maine, including Hawaii and Alaska, so the opportunities of traveling and seeing the country, it’s something that people can’t experience in the regular world,” he says.
His rodeo career even allowed him special bonding time with his daughter as she was growing up. “She went with me from the time she was 8 until the time she was 17 every summer for at least a month,” Swingler describes.
As his career gains in longevity, the friendships Swingler has made over the years have sweetened. Now he’s finding himself returning to the same rodeos he’s worked in seasons past, and the friendships he’s made along the way pick up right where they left off. It’s a rewarding job with a bigger mission for Swingler.
“I think that if you can get out there and just let everybody let their thoughts go and not worry about daily life for two and a half hours; entertain the folks and let them come see a rodeo, making sure everybody has a good time, is just huge to me.”
Swingler can’t consider slowing down, because he loves his work too much, but he has consolidated his run into a more compact four to five month schedule where he can still do 20-25 rodeos with 100 plus performances a year but be away from his home in Austin, Texas, less than he was in the beginning of his career.
Nowadays, he’s enjoying bringing a new act to the arena. Like his YMCA act that employed the use of a Model T car, Swingler’s new act also employs a vehicle, this time it’s a fire truck made from a VW bus. Using motorized props is a ploy from the early days of the profession, and though many of his peers have abandoned the theme because of the added effort, it’s a style Swingler still holds near to his heart.
In addition to preserving some of the classic aspects of the art form, Swingler pushes himself to keep exploring new technologies. His new act’s lead character is “Les McBurney,” a hapless but endearing fireman, who must put out the “fire” on the video replay screen – no small task of timing and communication with other members of the production staff. The comedy is slapstick, explains Swingler.
“My stuff is good for everybody: adults will get it, but kids will laugh at it too,” he says, adding, “we’re looking forward to bringing this new act to places I’ve already been. That’s what’s fun is being asked back and getting in a rotation at rodeos, because then you know you’re doing your job.” The laughter from the crowd is a good sign too, and Swingler is no stranger to that.
To find out more about Mark’s adventures on the rodeo road, visit www.markswingler.com.