The lone man facing a powerful bull with only cape and sword is an image long associated with the tradition of bullfighting. But an untraditional matador is making a name for herself in Spain.

Cristina Sanchez, 21, isn't Spain's first woman bullfighter. But she may prove to be the best ever, and she is drawing crowds, interviews and favorable reviews from seasoned bullfighting critics.This past summer, Sanchez became the first woman to kill six bulls in an afternoon.

Fighting bulls - even the 3-year-old, 770-pound animals Sanchez tackles as a novice bullfighter - is a dangerous business. But she is low-key about her pioneering role.

"You always have to prove yourself, or people will say it's because you're a woman that you failed," she said after a fight.

Women bullfighters first gained attention in Spain at the turn of the century. They came back into vogue during the late 1970s when laws limiting them to taking on the animals from horseback were lifted following the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

But most were treated as curiosities rather than as serious professionals.

"In bullfighting there's a lot of machismo," said William Lyon, an American authority on bullfighting and a longtime bullfight columnist for Spanish newspapers. "She gets less support from other toreros, but they know it's politically correct to say everybody should have an equal chance."