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One student's quest to win the college lumberjack championship

Matt Slingerland, who comes from a family of timbersport competitors, will vie for the national title this weekend in Georgia.

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"He's a joy to coach," his dad says. "I wanted him to be self-motivated and he is."

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The Slingerlands have made friends with regional mills and loggers in a never-ending quest to secure free or cheap wood chunks suitable for the hours of daily practice required to hone the quick, precise cuts.

Moments later, Matt fires up a high-powered chain saw and begins a new round of cuts. After making his first incision, Matt tells his father that an army of fire ants is lingering near his cutting station. His dad grins. "Go fast, then!"

Matt polices himself, eager to put in the tedious practice sessions essential for competitive success, Mike says. New neighbors usually pay at least one curiosity visit, with the same question, says Barbara Slingerland. "Why do you do this?"

Matt hopes to turn timbersports into a fulltime living by the time he's done with college. He's humble, but confident. Was he surprised to wind up in the hunt for the national championship his first time out? Not really. "I trained for it for quite a while," Matt says. "So I was hoping on it, planning on it."

Matt, who lives a short distance from the formerly rural textile village that spawned NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, remains a bit of a novelty in his sparsely populated hometown. Some friends and classmates are intrigued by the unusualness of the sport, asking to come over for backyard demonstrations. Others are baffled. "A lot of them don't have a clue and they say, 'Oh, you just chop down trees,' " Matt says.

Other genre stereotypes persist: that Matt should be wearing red-plaid flannel at all times, that he should eat pancakes at every meal. To be fair, few classmates expect him to have a blue ox named Babe, though the notion of Matt on a package of Brawny paper towels might satisfy.

Matt, who also plays high school basketball and baseball, often trains several hours a day, from weight lifting to sawing and chopping logs. During baseball season, he believes his constant ax-swinging feeds his bat speed at the plate.

And while football stars still get their share of cheerleaders, so, too, does the fledgling timbersports star. Matt's girlfriend is, yes, captain of the high school cheerleader squad. Alas, no bands, cheerleaders, or pep squads adorn the woods where college lumberjacks compete – yet.

If you're wondering where academic life fits into all this, worry not. Matt's on the honor roll.

• • •

Lumberjacking in the Slingerland family is similar to what football is to the Mannings. Matt's grandfather became a champion in the sport after a town celebration in 1972 led the elder Slingerland into an impromptu wood-chopping competition. He trained for a few weeks and wound up defeating a pro in his first attempt.

From then on, he was hooked – and would go on to make handcrafted lumberjack equipment while molding his son, Mike, into a championship-caliber performer.

Raised in upstate New York, Mike Slingerland met Barbara in college. During graduate school, while living in Brooklyn, their tiny rental included a small area where Mike practiced chopping and cutting. The neighbors were baffled.

The Slingerlands moved to North Carolina in 1990 for work. He's a pediatric rehab therapist and she's a speech therapist. As his story illustrates, most professionals competing in timbersports must also work full-time day jobs to support their habits. Winning enough to defray expenses for travel and equipment means success for many in the sport.

Matt professes a desire to follow in his father's flannel-free footsteps. "You didn't say you wanted to do what I've done," Mike Slingerland says, grinning at his prodigy. "You said you wanted to do it better."

Matt offers full agreement – with a grin and a nod.