Working or competing at every large rodeo in the United States is a magnificent feat, and it’s one that John Gwatney is proud to have on his resume.
He has been decorated for his knowledge in the sport. A man who has competed in every event inside the arena, he now stands as the production director for many rodeos across North America. He’s done much in his career, and most of it has been with his bride, Sandy, at his side.
“The biggest highlight of my career was watching Sandy get Secretary of the Year in the PRCA and WPRA in the same year,” he said of the 2016 honors bestowed upon his wife. “She is the only lady, to this day, to be able to do that.”
The Gwatneys met more than two decades ago at the rodeo in San Francisco and have been together ever since. They rodeoed together – she was his hazer for several years while he competed in steer wrestling, riding on the opposite side of the steer to keep it lined out for him as he made his runs – and settled in Marquez more than a dozen years ago.
“We had been looking for property in our rodeo circle, and we were looking all over the United States,” he said. “While we were at the rodeo in Pasadena, we found out about this place, drove up to see it, and we ended up closing on the property in the winter of the next year.
“Sandy likes to say she wasn’t born a Texan, but she got here as fast as she could.”
They still rodeo together, but they’re on the production side of the arena now. Married in Las Vegas during the 1998 National Finals Rodeo, he organizes everything that happens in the arena, and she organizes the books and serves as a timer. They work between 30-40 events a year, most of it together.
It’s a passion for rodeo and the people involved in it.
“This is about the love of the game, and we never say it enough,” Sandy Gwatney said. “I got to see the contestant side of it, so I know how important it is that they get trades and they get splits they need. I think that experience helps me exponentially at my job.”
John Gwatney has a Texas history to him. His mother, the former Natalie Slavinsky, was from Brenham, and he holds proud that legacy in his life. He even returns to that area of Texas to work rodeos in Hempstead and Bellville in early October. But there’s much more to what he and his wife are to rodeo and what rodeo is to them.
“Rodeo is a disease of sorts,” he said. “It’s the comradery; it’s something that gets under your skin. I tried several times to get away from rodeo, but it just drew me back. That’s where my heart is.”
And that’s what leads both to follow their dreams in the sport.
“If you don’t love what you do, don’t do it,” Sandy Gwatney said. “I do this because of the people. It’s like spending time with family.” —Ted Harbin
Ted Harbin is a longtime journalist who spent 22 years in the newspaper industry before focusing on rodeo. He owns Rodeo Media Relations and TwisTed Rodeo and is one of just eight individuals to be honored with media awards by both the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. He lives in Maryville, Mo., with is wife, Lynette, and their two daughters, Laney and Channing.