Man of Stihl: HCC student to compete at national collegiate timber sports championship in July
By Michael Beadle
Jay Blackburn never figured he’d be competing against the best axe-chopping, saw-cutting athletes in the country when he enrolled at Haywood Community College two years ago. Now he’s planning to pursue a career as a timber sports athlete.
That’s what college can do for a person.
Growing up, Blackburn would occasionally watch the timber sports competitions and then reluctantly joined in the woodsmen’s meets when he came to HCC to major in forestry. After six months, he was crowned a regional timber sports champion. After nine months, he finished third in the nation in the collegiate championship series sponsored by Stihl. As he prepares to graduate this spring with an associate’s degree in forestry management technologies, the sophomore from Marion is again the Mid-Atlantic region’s champion timber sportsman and will go on to compete with five other finalists at the nationals on July 21 in Clearwater, Minn.
If Blackburn’s success has given him something of a rock star status on campus — he was featured on ESPNU last year — he’s not letting on. Humbled by the accolades and focused on his mission to win this summer, he’s worked hard practicing with fellow teammates in the HCC Forestry Club in competitions throughout the year. Sporting a horseshoe mustache and burly arms, the 24-year-old has the look of a lumberjack. He’ll once again be featured on ESPNU next month when the channel airs this year’s regional Timbersports championship.
Working with coach and former HCC instructor Jimmy Lawrence, himself a competitor in the timber sports, Blackburn trains about an hour and a half several times a week in addition to lifting weights, eating lots of protein and gathering advice from professionals who have been on the timber sports circuit.
Contrary to what some might think, chopping and sawing wood is not just about strength.
Blackburn says it’s more about getting your technique down than relying on speed.
In the underhand chop event, for example, it’s best to line up your axe and drop the blade in a straight line instead of pull the axe back behind your head like most people might think you’d need to in order to gather momentum. You lose your angle that way. Chopping straight down is actually a better technique.
“Take your time to learn your technique,” Lawrence said. Then the speed will come.
And with experience comes better technique. In fact, Blackstone explains, many timber sports athletes don’t peak until their 30’s.
“They say you’re not even comfortable with the axe until you’ve used it for 10 years,” Lawrence said.
Blackburn is hoping to channel his natural talent and hard work into cash prizes and recognition for Western North Carolina. Just for going to the nationals, he’s already earned $1,000 for HCC.
If he wins at the collegiate level, Blackburn will be among 32 finalists in the national professional Stihl Timbersports series. Sort of like the NCAA basketball Final Four, these finalists compete for 16 slots, and then eight and finally numero uno.
Stihl, an international company best known for its brand of chain saws, is a major sponsor for the Timbersports series of U.S. and world championships. Australia, New Zealand and European nations such as Austria and Germany field some of the best international competition, but Stihl is trying to build the sport in the United States. It’s catching on at colleges like HCC, which has the only community college forestry program of its kind in the state. And with the school located near the Cradle of Forestry — where the nation’s first forestry school began — as well as the legacy of Appalachian lumber companies, HCC has a rich history instilled in its program.
“It attracts a lot of out-of-state students,” says Blair Bishop, an HCC forestry instructor and forestry club advisor.
Next year, as part of the annual rotation of college sites in the Mid-Atlantic region, HCC will proudly host the timber sports competition on its campus. The field of schools includes teams from North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Timbersports harken back to a bygone era of rugged lumberjacks a century ago, Bishop explains. But today’s competitions provide a new spirit of excitement and respect for athleticism and endurance. Like the decathlon of track and field, the timbersports athlete has to compete in multiple events that test strength, speed and agility. Overall, there are eight events.
In the springboard event, the competitor uses two springboards to climb to the top of a nine-foot pole and then chops through a block of wood that’s 12 inches in diameter. In the stock saw event, accuracy and speed are put to the test as individuals use a chainsaw to make two cuts of wood. No more than 4 inches of wood can be cut. Next, in the underhand chop — Blackburn’s favorite — competitors stand on a log and chop through it from both sides and take care not to miss and hit their own leg, foot or worse. Usually, protective guards are worn to shield against missed hits. In single buck sawing — one of Blackburn’s best events — a long saw is used to cut through a foot-and-half-wide log of white pine. Wielding a long saw and cutting quickly and precisely involves both strength and technique. If you’ve ever tried sawing through a thick log, you know fatigue starts to set in, but competitors have to keep the saw blade moving constantly until the job is done.
In the standing block chop, individuals race to chop through the side of a foot-long piece of white pine from both sides. Next up is the hot saw event, which also involves a chain saw — three cuts no more than 6 inches wide.
The last two events don’t involve a saw or an axe. In the boom run, individuals have to run across a chain of floating logs, and in the speed climb, it’s a race to climb up a 65-foot spar pole and then touch the pole at least every 20 feet on the free fall down to the ground.
While some sports require a ball field or a gym, timbersports don’t need much space for practicing. However, the equipment can be quite costly. A single bucksaw can cost about $1,600 and a hot saw can set you back about $6,000, according to Lawrence. Fortunately, schools and woodsmen’s associations can loan out equipment.
“It’s expensive equipment,” Blackburn admits. But if it’s put to good use, it’ll pay for itself, he adds.
For more information about HCC’s forestry club exploits, go to http://hccforestry.blogspot.com/. For more on Stihl’s Timbersports Series, go to www.stihltimbersports.com.