Unidentified Man: Ready, set, go!
(Soundbite of chainsaw)
MIKE PESCA, host:
Oh, the wood was flying this weekend in Columbus, Georgia, at the Stihl Timber Sports U.S. Championship, where lumberjacks from around the country showed up with their finest saws and axes to compete in a variety of events like the Single Buck, the Underhanded Chop and the Hot Saw. Among the competitors was 17-year-old Matt Slingerland, a high-school senior from North Carolina who signed up for college courses in order to compete in the collegiate division.
Matt may have been the youngest competitor, but he's still got a lot of experience. He's been training in timber sports since he was eight, and he's got a great coach. His dad, Mike Slingerland, has 22 world titles in a variety of sawing competitions. Matt and Mike, competitive lumberjacks, join us now. Hi guys.
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND (Competitive Lumberjack; Winner, Single Buck Event, 2008 Stihl Timbersports U.S. Championship): Hey. Good to be here.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND (Competitive Lumberjack): Hi, Mike. Nice to be here.
PESCA: Is it - I'll ask dad, Matt - dad is Mike. I'll ask Mike first. Is it lame to ask if Matt's a chip off the old block?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: It's a little cliche.
PESCA: A little cliche? But is he? Did you like what you saw out of him this weekend? Oh wait, that's a pun, too, I didn't even mean it, what you saw out of him, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: That one wasn't so good, though.
PESCA: Yeah, no, I didn't mean it.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Well, I think Matt did really great. Like all athletes, he sees where he could have improved and done better, but I think he did a great job for a 17 year old against all those older guys.
PESCA: And Matt, how'd you place?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: I got second overall, and I won the Single Buck, and got third and fourth in the other two events.
PESCA: What is the Single Buck? What goes on in that event?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: There's a one person saw about six foot long, and you have to saw through a 19-inch round piece of wood in the littlest time possible.
PESCA: And what's the Hot Saw? That jumped out at me.
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh. You get - we actually did the Stock Saw...
PESCA: The Stock Saw.
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Professionals do the Hot Saw. But it's where you get, I guess, the biggest saw you can find and saw through the same piece of wood three times in a row within six inches of wood, which is rather difficult. But whoever gets the fastest time, I guess, pulls it out.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Yeah, with the Hot Saw event, a lot of them are using - most of them are using motorcycle or even snowmobile engines, up to 350-cc engines.
PESCA: So they're specially fitted. It's not anything an actual lumberjack would use?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Oh, no, they're custom made. They cost about, oh, six to7,000 dollars each, and it's quite the thing. You would go deaf if you didn't have ear protection on.
PESCA: Oh, my word! Are these all - are the events all honest-to-goodness skills used by real lumberjacks to fell trees? Or is that just where their roots are, and they've kind of changed over the years, the events?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Most of the events come from working in the woods. Originally, the standing block events simulates chopping a tree down. The Horizontal Block Chop, which Matt competed in, cuts the tree into lengths. And the sawing events, there's also cutting the tree into lengths.
PESCA: And, Matt, did you - I know that it's a family that goes back generations in the lumberjack events. But did you grow up with it because you needed to chop wood to, you know, put on the fire? Or was it always for a competition that you chopped and sawed?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: I grew up learning it was always for competition. We never really had to chop it for firewood or anything. So I was always born to chop wood for competition.
PESCA: What about you, Mike?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Well, we did heat by wood when I was growing up. We lived way out in the country and didn't have a lot of money, and we had to put wood in the stove.
PESCA: And then I think I read something interesting. Somehow, you wound up chopping in Brooklyn?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Yeah, I lived in Brooklyn when I went to graduate school. I have a master's degree in physical therapy from Columbia, and we lived in Brooklyn after I graduated from school. And we did all our training in this little tiny backyard with the neighbors looking on, hoping they - we didn't go crazy.
PESCA: I think I read that book, "A Tree Falls in Brooklyn."
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Now, I also understand that it's not - you would think that if you live out there in the woods you could just go a-choppin'. But is it actually difficult to find enough wood to get all your practice in on?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: It really is very difficult. We contact some local loggers who work with some local mills and do what we can to get wood as we go along. It's really been - that's the biggest challenge, actually, in training. Matt would love to train about twice as much, if not more, than he does already.
PESCA: Really? Well, Matt, you are competing against guys who are on NCAA teams. You're just - you know, you're doing it for yourself. You took this college course to qualify. Do those guys have an advantage, like their training programs, they have unlimited amounts of wood to chop?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: I'm sure it helps them out a little bit. They actually have the woods to actually go chop, and we struggle to get our wood. So I don't get to practice nearly as much as I'd like to. So that might have a disadvantage towards me.
PESCA: How old were the guys you're competing against?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, somewhere around 22 to 27 years old.
PESCA: Twenty-seven-year-old collegiates? Wow! And so they had, you know, five to ten years on you. What about physically? Are you still filling out?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, yeah. I'm about 160 to their maybe 230, 250.
PESCA: So they guy who came in first, how big is he?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, he was rather short, but he was a pretty big guy. I would say around 220 pounds, maybe.
PESCA: Wow! So, you're giving away 60 pounds, a lot of experience. So, how are you able to play so well? Is your technique just pristine? They have more brawn, you have more smarts?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Yeah, I have to make up for it because I'm not as big, and I have one of the best coaches...
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: So I learned to have better technique than all the rest.
PESCA: And what was the college course you took?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: I took spreadsheets.
PESCA: And did you learn spreadsheets?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Yes.
PESCA: Well, that's good.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: He got an A in the course.
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: That's true.
PESCA: You got an A in the course? OK, that's pretty awesome. And before the competition starts, does everyone eat pancakes?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Yeah, sometimes, but not all the time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: You keep going with those cliches, Mike. I don't know what's...
PESCA: OK, so let's do it right now. Let's bust the - what's the most annoying cliche about lumberjacks? What would you just like to set straight about the lumberjack competitions? How they're not like what we think. Mike, you want to start?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Well, I think the biggest thing is that we're not loggers. We're professional lumberjack competitors. The majority of people in the sport don't log for a living. We have lawyers. We have jewelers. I'm a physical therapist. We have - we come from all walks of life, and it's a sport that we do, it's not a job that we do.
PESCA: So you're telling me you're just not going to see any flannel at the event.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Yeah, that's one of the other big cliches, that we're all flannel-wearing, pancake-eating loggers. And no blue oxes around here.
PESCA: No blue...
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: That would be cheating. They'd have to check him for steroids. How young - Matt, how young were you when your dad and your coach started getting you in on the lumberjack competitions?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, I was around eight years old. And I went out in the backyard because he was practicing for himself, and I thought it would be pretty cool to try. And so they let me start.
PESCA: I guess with a very watchful coach, you could start that young. But Mike, how old would you recommend parents wait if they want to get their kids to lumberjacking?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Very few junior competitors get into the sport at a young age unless their parents are already involved in the sport. Typically, somebody whose parents aren't involved would get involved in college, so about 18 years old, a little more responsible, a little filled out. It's a pretty tough sport to get into, physically, at that young age, if you don't have really good coaching for the technique.
PESCA: Are there actually, you know, junior saws and junior axes?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Most of the competitors will actually make their own - will cut down tools, the bigger tools, because our competition tools are way bigger than anything you'd find in a hardware store.
PESCA: Right. And from what I've read, that the college circuit is relatively young, 28 schools started in 2004. Fifty-two colleges participated this year. Why do you think interest is growing?
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: I think Stihl Timbersports really brought it on. You see it on ESPN all the time now, and Stihl Timbersports, with Carhartt, has just grown the sport from the grassroots level. And they brought it into the college level at about five years ago, and conclaves just keeps signing up, because they want that exposure. And the grand prize for the winner is to get on to the Stihl Timbersports series, which is - that's the elite level of competition.
PESCA: Matt, what do your friends think of this sport? Do they - are they into it also? Do they think you're strange for spending all your times in the woods, hacking apart trees?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: I think, back in the day, they used to think I was a bit strange doing it. They didn't really understand. They just thought it's the same thing as most people do, just going out there and eating pancakes all the time and stuff. But after they come and seen it, they think it's pretty cool. They like it.
PESCA: I like pancakes. Let's not denigrate pancakes. And your training for the sport, do you - I'm sure you do a lot of training just on the actual axes and stuff. But are you doing running, weight lifting?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, yeah. I do weight lifting. My day pretty much consists of school, weight lifting, studying and lumberjacks.
PESCA: Right, and the occasional spreadsheet course. But the training that you do for the lumberjack competition, does it translate to other sports really well, do you think?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, my baseball coach always tries to connect my wood chopping with hitting a baseball, so he tries to do that a bit.
PESCA: It's different strokes, right?
Mr. MATT SLINGERLAND: Oh, yeah, but there's some similarities, and he was just trying to connect it, I think, because maybe it would be easier for me, because I'm such a good lumberjack.
PESCA: I guess, but I mean, I know in baseball, they say, get up there and take some hacks, but there's no tree flying at you in the lumberjack competition. And last I heard, you know, redwoods haven't learned a curve ball yet. So I don't know how close that is.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: I think the biggest carryover from it is this fact that he's a great athlete.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: And so, he can do all these sports really well. He's a starter on the basketball team at the high school, as well as the baseball team.
PESCA: All right.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: And just, you know, the athleticism involved in all the sports.
PESCA: Well, congratulations, Matt and Mike Slingerland, competitive lumberjacks. Thank you, guys.
Mr. MIKE SLINGERLAND: Great to be here. I hope to talk to you again someday.
PESCA: All right. Yeah, when you win a gold, and your son does. Bye.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.