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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Buzz cut: Matt Slingerland competed in the single buck discipline during a regional timbersport event in North Carolina in April. He won the event. Timbersport competition is gaining popularity on college campuses across the country.
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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.

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.

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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.

• • •

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.

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

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.

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