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.
Matt Slingerland can cut it. And he can chop, saw, and do most anything else you can think of when it comes to hacking into tree stumps, blocks, and other large hunks of wood.Skip to next paragraph
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Matt comes by his talent honestly. His father, Mike, is a 24-time world titlist in various logging, or timbersports, disciplines. Not only that, Matt's mom, Barbara, has also competed at the highest levels of the sport and still takes on the occasional challenge with her husband in so-called Jack-and-Jill competitions. Matt's twin brother and younger sister also compete.
Notable, too, all in the family have been remarkably injury-free despite years of muscling mighty saws, axes, and chain saws at high speeds. Credit a self-pronounced fanaticism for safety as well as chain-link socks and shinguards.
Now Matt, the slight younger Slingerland, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 160 pounds, may soon wield the biggest ax on campus despite having just wrapped up his junior year of high school. Later this month, he'll battle for the college championship in a nationally televised competition. "I'm expecting to be the smallest person there," Matt says, smiling. "And the youngest."
He'll be giving up as much as 90 pounds to competitors. Matt, 17, enrolled in a class and joined the woodsmen's team of a nearby community college in an attempt to qualify for one of six spots in the Collegiate Series Championship on June 28-29 in Columbus, Ga. He did, clinching a spot in the national championship in April.
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Matt is part of a sawdust-savvy movement making its way across the nation. They haven't quite made bowl games and March Madness brackets passé, but so-called woodsmen's teams are gaining popularity on college campuses in every region. The buzz saw leading the way is TV. Organizers of the STIHL Timbersports professional tour, created and backed by the chain saw company in 1985, hoped to generate new interest in the sport several years ago. Although ESPN has covered the competitions for more than two decades, backers wanted to ensure a steady infusion of new talent. Their solution: A collegiate series, aimed at developing up-and-comers for the big tour.
Collegiate lumberjacks aren't on scholarship or part of the NCAA. Instead, they represent club teams, with many of the participants majoring in forestry and related subjects. When the college circuit began in 2004, 28 schools competed; this year, 52 colleges participated in five regional championships. The five winners, plus a wild-card entry, make up the six-man championship field, including Matt.
"It's got the perfect storm of skills and interests," says Don Quigley, professor of forest technology at Granite State University in New Hampshire and founder of a company that produces timbersports competitions. "You've got forestry and land conservation and all of these things that college kids are really interested in. Plus, it's a different kind of athletic outlet."
On a recent, muggy Sunday afternoon, Matt heads into his backyard for another workout. He begins with an event not included in the collegiate championships: the ax toss. It serves as a warm-up and entails just what you might think: throwing an ax at a bull's-eye target on a stump 20 feet away.
From there, it's on to his three events: standing on a stump and hacking it into oblivion from two sides with an ax, making a precision cut on a tree with speed and dexterity using a chain saw, and, finally, arm-pumping a massive bucksaw through a 19-inch-diameter tree slab.
Mr. Slingerland coaches with a practiced but affectionate eye. He offers quiet pointers and reminders. Just as a golfer or baseball player would do, Matt works on everything from technique to speed. He chips away at a stump, aiming to perfect his mechanics with a 26-swing session: 13 cuts on the front, 13 on the back, with a goal of finishing in 26 seconds. Matt often does 10 of these sets a day.