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Ax Women

For the first time in the 33-year history of the STIHL Timbersports Series, the lumberjills take center stage

A treated image of a woman competing in a lumberjack event Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Martha King doesn’t know what she’s supposed to look like. Everyone else seems to have an idea. When strangers learn she competes in professional lumberjack sports—that’s the official nomenclature—King hears some variation of the same line: You don’t look like a lumberjack.

“Oh, you’re not very big,” they say. “Shouldn’t you be doing something else?” they ask.

“Like what?” she responds. “Do you want me to start sewing?”

Sure, she’s 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds and wears baby-blue dry-wick T-shirts and a ballerina bun secured with a butterfly clip in competitions instead of what one might expect (flannel? Hiking boots? Suspenders?). But she’s right there, swinging her ax, and putting up some of the best times in the sport.

King’s passion is hacking a 30-inch, six-pound racing ax into a piece of white pine almost a foot thick. A few Saturdays ago in Milwaukee, she competed on the biggest stage of her lumberjacking career. For the first time in the history of the 33-year-old STIHL Timbersports Series, the women’s championship was held on the same stage, on the same day, as the men’s, giving the female lumberjacks—or lumberjills—equal footing. This is only the second national women’s championship in series history. Last year’s competition in Cherry Valley, New York, marked the first, but it was held weeks before the men’s final.

As King—suddenly icily serious when handed an ax—approached her spot on stage, a breathless announcer introduced her as “the Queen of the Keystone, the King of the Underhand!” King lifted the ax at 45 degrees to effortlessly notch two footholds into the wood and steadied herself atop the circular surface. She tilted the steel head of her ax slightly to the right, bent at her knees and waited. “Stand to your timber!” an official shouted over the loudspeaker, and King raised her ax and slammed it down, angled, into the wood, again and again and again, as it broke off in pale yellow sheets. In less than 33 seconds, the log had split, and King had jumped back on to the ground, only slightly winded.

King, 28, is one of the fastest female underhand choppers in the world, which means she’s really good at chopping a whole bunch of wood really quickly while making sure she doesn’t accidentally chop off her big toe. That is a thing that happens—not too often, but often enough in lumberjack sports, a series of chopping and sawing disciplines based on the traditional tasks of the logging industry. The niche sport, which draws most of its participants from areas like the Pacific Northwest, Appalachia, and satellite campuses of land grant universities such as Penn State Mont Alto, has organized regional, collegiate, and national competitions since 1985. ESPN3 livestreams the STIHL national championships and the event will be broadcast on ABC this fall.

Contestants are sponsored by hardwood flooring companies and recovery sports drinks; the streamed competition is peppered with John Deere and Duluth Trading ads. There is way less flannel than your average dive bar with PBR specials, and there is a lot of earnest talk about understanding the nature of wood and its tension points.

Lumberjack sports in general have been around more than 100 years, said Roger Phelps, STIHL corporate communications manager. Those outside the sport often misunderstand the tenets of success, he explains. It’s a skill sport that requires accuracy, precision, and mental toughness. “Someone more accurate and not quite as powerful can win over a big hulking guy just flailing around on the wood,” he said. “It’s golf with a seven-pound razorblade.”

The historical gender imbalance in the sport can be traced to the natural makeup of the logging industry. It was a male-dominated industry that transitioned into a male-dominated sport, but women began popping up in competitions decades ago: Erin LaVoie, King’s opponent in the underhand chop heat, began sawing for her college team at Spokane Community College in 2002; Nancy Zalewski, 49, first picked up an ax when she was 17. As lumberjack sports evolved from an industry to a pastime to an “extreme sport,” the caliber of female competitors steadily improved.

Zalewski had to compete in men’s events when she first started out. She didn’t place, but she proved she knew her way around timber.

Nancy Zalewski at a competition in New Hampshire in 2014
AP Images

“We worked really hard for 10 years to get ourselves into it,” she said of STIHL finally adding the women’s championship. “And after last year, I think we impressed enough … this is bigger for us, this was the next step we needed to take to cement the fact that women are serious, they’re competitors, they belong on the stage with the men.”

LaVoie placed top three in a competition three days after she first began chopping. Had she known it would take almost two decades to get the same recognition as men, Lavoie might have put down her ax years ago.

“I probably would have quit,” she said. “That’s a really long time! I just kept chipping away, because I didn’t know any better.”

Each time these women swing their ax, they’re also trying to grind away at antiquated views of who they are, what they should look like, and how they should perform.

LaVoie doesn’t compete for the money (first place at the women’s championship offered a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and no cash prizes) or the crowds. Someone with an innate competitive streak like hers craves serious challengers, not easy accolades. After countless contests as one of only two or three competitors, she faced off against 37 women in the qualifiers, and would compete against seven others in the final. In last year’s contest, she had the fastest underhand chop in the field and bested King by more than five seconds in the single buck, but she was disqualified in the stock saw and ended up tied for third with King. Two days before the first whistle, I asked her what she was most looking forward to about the upcoming weekend, and her answer was quick: winning.

“I’m ready for it,” LaVoie said. “It’s been a long time coming. Game on.”

The men’s competition includes six events, and the women’s is comprised of three: underhand chop, stock saw, and single buck. For each event, the women can earn up to eight points (for first place) and the final winner is decided by the points total after the three events. Underhand chop is a favorite of LaVoie and King, likely because they’re two of the best to ever do it. The premise is fairly simple: Chop a 11.81-inch-thick piece of pine as quickly as you can. The closer one stands to the center (and therefore, the point of impact of the blade), the better the accuracy and strength. Chainmail socks are highly recommended if you intend to leave the log with all of your appendages. LaVoie mentions picking up stray toes almost serenely, as if it’s an everyday occurrence. Shin guards ensure that if you mis-swing and connect with your calf, you might just crush the bone, but not sever it, King assures me.

When King and LaVoie begin whacking away at the pale yellow wood, they’re doing so in a pattern that follows a “scarf,” a guideline the competitor draws when they first step up to the log. Then, starting on one’s dominant side, the competitor starts chopping in a clockwise or counter-clockwise cycle; middle-hit, top-hit, middle-hit, top-hit.

Succeeding at this level is a cocktail of everything, LaVoie explains. If you have strength, but not accuracy, you won’t win. It doesn’t matter if you hack at the wood ruthlessly with everything you’ve got if you don’t know how to read the wood.

“You need everything when it comes down to hundredths of a second,” LaVoie says. “You have to be smart. You can’t just be strong.”

King takes 32.97 seconds to sever her log. LaVoie’s 36.63 is good enough to put her in second place overall.

The pine that STIHL uses is soft, and more familiar to some competitors than others. King, who is based out of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, practices mostly on pine and poplar picked up by her father, an arborist. LaVoie owns a CrossFit gym in Spokane, Washington, and practices on a deck built outside the gym using aspen and cottonwood she gets from a logger friend. Zalewski, a southern Wisconsin native, drives north to pick up 8-foot logs of aspen and white pine.

One is unlikely to get rich off of lumberjack sports success. Many have day jobs, and many pay their own way to competitions. Axes generally run around $600, and single bucksaws can cost up to $1,800. In last year’s qualifier in Cherry Valley, New York, Phelps watched a lumberjill hand over a spare ax after her opponent broke hers in competition. She’d rather win based on skill, rather than a technicality. In a sport in which the highest possible payday of the year doesn’t top $5,000, these athletes don’t want easy wins. They train and compete for the challenge. You have to do it for the love of the sport, LaVoie says: the max prize money from the STIHL national championships is $1,500 for first place in each event, and no grand prize besides the Harley. Second place in each event wins $1,000, and third takes $800. (The men’s program, which has twice as many events, offers double the payout.) Most regional or less-prestigious competitions offer about $500 for first in each event, LaVoie says. In her first 15 years in the sport, before she found a sponsor, LaVoie was saving up money to buy her own equipment. Prize money wasn’t enough to offset the costs.

This is not a cheap nor convenient sport. One doesn’t get into it because chopping is lucrative, or college scholarships abound. It draws people who crave the balance of dexterity and force; who revel in the feeling of watching a log of pine splinter after a well-placed hit, much like a soccer player relishes a shot to the upper half of the net. The difficulty of balancing finances and finding ample practice material is a task that both lumberjacks and lumberjills need to navigate—but only the latter has to also consider their responses to quips from strangers and acquaintances. Turns out that men seem to fear a woman with an ax.

Erin LaVoie in Germany in 2008
AP Images

“It is the most annoying thing,” LaVoie says. She and King have both heard their share of “Well, I wouldn’t want to piss you off” comments. “I hear it all the damn time.”

Zalewski, one of the most senior athletes in the field, has her response down: “I wouldn’t waste my time,” she tells men. “I’m not going to waste my equipment on you.”

Zalewski is a full-time chemist who grew up in Hayward, Wisconsin, the home of the Lumberjack World Championships. She finished sixth in last year’s championship, and dedicated her last year of training to perfecting her stock saw. In that event, a log 15.75 inches in diameter is elevated above the ground, and each of the women is given a standard STIHL chain saw. The wood is marked with a purple line four inches in from the edge, and it’s a contest of how quickly one can saw two thin disks—called “cookies”—and stay within the purple line. The first cut has to be top to bottom, and the second is from bottom to top.

It looks easier than the underhand chop, but it’s not. The women begin with their heads down, almost touching the log with their legs bent slightly, then pop up at the announcer’s signal. Some of the competitors slice through with confident ease; others accidentally chop off too little or too much on their first go and double back, eventually shearing past the purple line.

“She is out of timber at that point,” the announcer says as one woman slices a too-thin sliver of wood and gets disqualified. There are no disqualifications during the underhand chop and the single buck, but in this event, there are three.

Zalewski’s underhand chop put her in fourth, but she comes into the afternoon with an added edge, having spent the week before stock saw racing some of the best men competitors in the field in her backyard in Manitowoc, just an hour north. Her go-to opponent in the lead-up was Matt Slingerland, who ended up finishing third overall in the men’s championship. When she approached the log, she pictured herself in the backyard, racing “Mattie,” as she calls him.

It took her 11.35 seconds to complete the two disks. Her slices seemed effortless, and the wood offered no retort.

“You completely turn around that stereotype, and become a person that competes,” she said. “We become valid competitors in the eyes of the sport, in something that was male-dominated for so long. We just want to be equal. We’re on the same stage.”

LaVoie, who struggled in the stock saw last year, cuts the second-fastest time of the afternoon, then bounds over to the interviewer grinning, her cutthroat facade softened for a moment after she realized she had gotten through her most difficult event with a time good enough to keep her in the top two.

“That’s what I did every damn day,” she told the announcer. “I made cut after cut.”

With two events down, LaVoie’s stock saw finish was strong enough to leave her tied for first with King with 14 points, and Zalewski was in third with 13 points.

Later, after the competition had been over for more than a week, LaVoie would marvel at the calm that came over her during the final event.

“When I got there, I felt—I’m just ready, I’m not stressed, I’m not nervous,” she said. “For the first time, I didn’t really care about anyone else. I felt, I’m ready, the chips are going to fall as they will. It was a cool feeling.”

On the night of the championship, the final event is the single bucksaw. The women prop up the six-foot blade, which is flat on top and has staggered teeth on the bottom reminiscent of a giant-sized saw in a children’s cartoon. If the underhand chop is about knowing when and where to cut, and the stock saw is a test of accuracy, then the single buck is the greatest show of arm muscle of the afternoon. Each woman begins by making a small cut on the wood with a smooth side of the saw to mark where they’ll make the full cut. They are assisted by “wedgers,” male competitors who insert a wedge in the wood as they saw to make sure the saw doesn’t stick, and spray WD-40 to keep the blade moving.

LaVoie’s heat is the last. The time to beat is King’s: 15.76 seconds. LaVoie steadies herself with her right foot forward in a 90-degree lunge, her back foot perpendicular in a pose reminiscent of Warrior 1, if you add a gigantic steel saw with hand-sharpened 10-centimeter teeth. She’s changed into Nike cleats for better traction for this last task. LaVoie yanks the bucksaw out and up at a 45-degree angle, pulling it out on the right side of her body to its full length so the tip of the steel saw almost leaves the pine. Her hips, torso, and arms are locked into the same determined rhythm as she slices just about seven times—out-in, out-in—until the sliced cookie drops to the ground after 14.54 seconds. As soon as the pine splits, LaVoie turns back to the clock behind her to see her unofficial time. She can tell, in that moment, that if the time holds, she will have secured first place. Grinning, LaVoie turns back to the wood and bends over, hands on knees, panting, with a speck of sawdust under her left eye.

“I felt like a champagne bottle being ready to open,” she said later of that moment. “I kind of thought I had it, but am not one to celebrate immediately. I was wanting to scream, but can’t until it’s in my hand.”

On the podium, she holds an ax with one hand and grabs Zalewski, who has secured third place, with a one-armed hug with the other. King, on her right, finished just two points short of first and will take home a John Deere Gator. LaVoie predicts that these women will spend the next few competitions leapfrogging each other.

“Every time you win something, you stir up fire,” she said. “The girl that lost is going to dig a little bit deeper, is going to come after you.”

The field, though larger than her early days as a lumberjill, is still small enough that she’ll see familiar faces at a competition in two weeks in New York. And at the end of the month, four of the eight female finalists will travel together to Adelaide, Australia, for the international women’s relay. The females regularly place in international competition, but the men finished dead last in this tournament last year. The women will pay their own way, and because of that, alternate trips to the relay every other year, to save money.

Later, Zalewski would refer to her stock saw as the best she’s ever run in her professional career. Her time was better than at least one competitor in the men’s finals, and better than all of the men’s collegiate competitors. Years of competing in the men’s field—first out of necessity, now to keep her edge as the women’s opposition improves—paid off.

Moments after her stock saw victory, when the announcer asked about her pre-race training regimen, she told him: “We had some races against the men in my family,” Zalewski said. “And darned if the girls are going to lose to the boys.”

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