The Ax Men
Norfolk’s Scope Arena Recently Played Host To The STIHL Timbersports Championship, A Spectacle Of Flying Sawdust And Lumberjacks Full Of Rip-Roaring Adrenaline
In a backstage dressing room, giant, bearded, thick-necked, mean-looking men are getting into their competitive modes. The air reeks of body odor and ethanol fuel. One burly man gently thumbs his ax to check for any dull spots on the edge. Another sucks on a wad of tobacco chew before spitting the juice into a cup. A father and son tighten the bolts on a supped-up, ultra-destructive chainsaw outfitted with a 55-horsepower modified dirt bike motor. It is a scene befitting a horror film about backwoods brutes having to fend off the zombie apocalypse with whatever tools they have handy. But in minutes, they each grab a weapon of choice and head out to the television cameras, arena lights and crowd of around 4,000 people, which turns this menacing sight into an entertaining spectacle.
Once a year men who look like mercenaries compete with tools that sound like racecars in the STIHL Timbersports U.S. Pro Championship lumberjack competition. This fringe sport purportedly began in Tasmania in 1870 as a bet between two loggers over who could fell a tree faster. Over the next century, logging communities in Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe and the United States held regional tournaments and expanded the variety of chopping and sawing disciplines. By 1985, STIHL began sponsoring the Timbersports Series in America to determine the world’s best lumberjack, broadcasting it on ESPN and drumming up fandom worldwide.
“As we like to say, the original extreme sport was born,” said STIHL head of promotions Roger Phelps. In the last decade, STIHL reconfigured the Series so that 24 countries held their own competitions, with the national champions advancing to an international contest that determines the best lumberjack in the world. The 2014 world championships will take place on Nov. 15 in Innsbruck, Austria.
Over a weekend in June inside the Norfolk Scope Arena, a short drive from the STIHL headquarters in Virginia Beach, 16 professional lumberjacks chopped and sawed through pine logs as quickly and accurately as possible in front of an eclectic, hollering crowd. Sitting four rows from the springboard event—in which competitors scurry up 9-foot logs to hack off the tops—Marcos and Vanessa Lozano had flown from Houston with their 4-month-old baby girl for her first experience with the world beyond their home.
“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!” squealed fellow spectator Veronica Shifflett at the sight of a chainsaw shredding pine and spraying sawdust into the air.
“I didn’t think a power tool could be a sport,” said Rembert Johnson, who arrived not knowing anything about the sport.
Despite many spectators like Johnson discovering Timbersports in person on a whim or at home by channel surfing (Phelps said the ABC network airings in September and October will attract 18 million viewers), the tradition was deeply rooted in the densely wooded regions of America long before the advent of a chainsaw. Most of the competitors are second- or third-generation loggers by profession from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. They basically grew up together in the sport, giving the circuit a fraternal feel because of its small turnover. Matt Slingerland was so eager to follow in his father Mike’s footsteps that in high school he took online college courses so that he could turn pro at 19. The wives compete in female and coed contests. Jason Lentz, 28, is a fourth-generation competitor. “It means sawdust runs through my veins,” he said.
Beyond the glitz and frivolity of the televised event—at one point, hernia belts were given away to the loudest fans—the blue collar ethos of Timbersports makes it appealing. “We use actual tools,” lumberjack Branden Sirguy, 39, a forester in Washington State, pointed out. “We’re pretty spoiled in this country. I think for my children to see how things were done before we had mechanization, we will have greater appreciation for where we’re at and the things we have.”
These are men who are proud of where they came from and how many hours of labor they put into the land. They do not say much, even when prompted. During the competition, when their muscles strain and adrenaline drives those critical final ax strokes, the most demonstrative they get is to raise a celebratory clenched fist. Although they do lighten up in one respect. “There are a lot of awkward wood jokes,” explained commentator Adrian Flygt. “It is very easy to indulge the junior high boy sense of humor. You set your blocks up and you say, ‘You got good wood today?’”
This is not entirely a joke. A comparatively dense log, known as a bone, could ruin someone’s chances. For every event, a specific log is assigned to each competitor, who inspects it, rotating it to find the softest point of entry, likely the side of the tree exposed to the least amount of wind. Lumberjacks bring a dozen axes to competitions to cater to the different species of wood. “It’s like a very lethal golf bag,” Phelps said. Physical strength is apparent in the prototypical Timbersports build: broad shoulders, meaty hands, massive forearms, trunk-like thighs and a gut. But perhaps more than in any other athletic competition in the world, success is predicated on experience.
Although STIHL began a collegiate series to recruit new talent and recently prohibited foreign lumberjacks from competing in the U.S. contest in order to birth an American star, the best in the sport are over 40 years old. At age 55, Melvin Lentz is considered the greatest ax man ever. Still a sturdy 6’4, 245-lbs, with a wide nose and protruding chin that makes him resemble George Washington, Lentz guesses he has won “at least 1,000” contests and six or seven world championships over international competition. “I’ve been in the sport for so long, heck I’ve lost count,” he said in his honky-tonk accent.
Essentially it took a spell of timber-felling-related injuries to slow him down. In 1997, the steel prong of a knuckleboom used for lifting timber impaled Lentz’s left leg. He required seven surgeries, could not walk for a year and lost four inches of his femur, resulting in the hitch in his gait today. The next year, a piece of timber fell on him and broke his right leg. Most recently, he broke his left ankle, fibula and tibia slipping and then getting struck by a falling log. Despite the damage, Lentz won the U.S. title in 2010 and arrived in Norfolk this year as a potential favorite to win.
“If I hadn’t broken my legs and stuff, I think the Cogars would have their hands full,” Lenz said.
That would be cousins Arden Jr. and Matt Cogar. Arden Jr., 44, won four of five U.S. titles between 2009 and 2012, while Matt, 27, won in 2013. Based in and around the historic logging community of Webster Springs, W. Va., the Cogars are a dynasty in lumberjack competitions with nearly 30 family members who have competed at one time or another dating back to the 1930s. “There’s bound to be somebody whose first date was throwing an ax,” Scooter Cogar, an up-and-comer on the circuit, said of how so many women are indoctrinated into the family tradition. Instead of backyard football for Thanksgiving, the Cogars throw axes.
Loquacious, self-deprecating and a civil defense trial lawyer by day, Arden Jr. stands out in the sport for his quirky personality. “I'm over educated,” he explained, humorously. “I don’t know where I got that gene because there’s lots of people in my family that don’t have it.” His physical appearance is similarly unconventional. With his thick-rimmed glasses, Australian cattleman’s hat, goatee and shaved head, he said he looks like a rotund lumberjack version of Walter White’s alter ego Heisenberg from Breaking Bad. He has competed in the Series for 27 years thanks to his daily training program that mixes in meditation and Olympic weight lifting done inside a custom-built compound beside his house.
More soft-spoken, less poetic and clean-shaven compared with his cousin, Matt, a firearms salesman by day, emerged as a young champion to little surprise. He began chopping competitively at 12 years old and received lessons from his own family of experts, as well as Melvin Lentz.
Matt proved his victory last year was not a fluke at the onset of the 2014 U.S. Finals, posting a personal best time and top finish in the springboard. There are three chopping and three sawing disciplines in the Series, with points awarded to competitors based on where their times rank per discipline. So long as a competitor finishes near the top in most of the disciplines, he is likely to finish as the overall point leader and champion. Chopping 6-feet high in the air next to Matt, Arden Jr. unexpectedly finished last, putting himself in a hole that would prove costly.
The worst injury occurred during the fourth discipline, the singlebuck, which involves a more than 6-foot-long saw known as the “misery whip” for the toll it takes on the body. Lentz cut the side of his left hand on the back of his saw. He declined an offer for a bandage. He sat on a folding chair in the dressing room, glanced at his bleeding hand, then looked up to watch the television screen, more interested in his competition. He paid no attention to the blood that trickled down his fingers. He sent two droplets to the floor as he changed his shoes for the next event.
Arden Jr. managed to climb back and was within four points of Matt entering the final, loudest and most crowd-pleasing discipline, the hot saw. Like a funny car race, competitors use their own modified chainsaws with single-cylinder motors typically ripped out of dirt bikes or snowmobiles. “They have pound-for-pound the most horsepower of any motor in sports,” Arden Jr. said. The revving and the siren-like sounds the hot saws emit, combined with the screams of a jolted audience, transform the environment inside the arena into a NASCAR track.
Knowing he had to post a great time regardless of Matt’s performance, Arden Jr. sawed aggressively and cost himself seconds on his shoddy cuts. “I had to go for it,” he explained. “I made a mistake.”
By the end of the hot saw, Matt secured the championship and Lentz posted the fastest time, placing him fifth overall. “I still keep up with the best of them,” Lentz said, smiling for the first time all day.
The backstage reactions were mixed. Matt cordially received congratulatory handshakes. Nearby, Dave Jewett, out of Pittsford, N.Y., who finished tied with Arden Jr. for second place, loudly complained that he would not be awarded $500 for having the best overall score in the three sawing disciplines, a practice STIHL discontinued this year. “The damn lunch spread probably cost thousands!” he griped. Moments later, a staffer walked in and asked Jewett to do a television interview. He immediately declined, furious. Then he feigned enthusiasm and obliged. He punched a metal trash bin on his way out.
Timbersports is short on material rewards. All the competitors have day jobs and make only a modest profit from competing since the travel and equipment costs are so high. Matt won $13,000 for the disciplines and a new Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck for the championship. He plans on trading the truck in for cash to cover his bills and help his wife with her student loans.
By 8:40 p.m., the arena was silent. All the fans and competitors had left except for Matt. In the dressing room, he delicately dusted the wood chips out of the teeth off of his singlebuck with a paintbrush. When asked if there is any glory in winning this sport, Matt stopped brushing, peered up smiling and said, “It’s right here.”
The STIHL Timbersports U.S. Pro Championship airs on ABC on Sept. 21 and 28 and Oct. 5. For more information, visit www.STIHLUSA.com/STIHL-Timbersports