Eighth generation Vermonter Calvin Willard was one of five Americans who recently competed in the STIHL® Timbersports® World Championship in Poznan, Poland. A professional lumberjack, Calvin ranked seventh in the nation in 2014 and at age 34, his professional career is just getting started!
Lumberjack sports, known to most only as fair events, have existed for hundreds of years, evolving from cultures where wood cutting was a primary industry. From axe throwing, log rolling and various forms of wood chopping, over time this has become an exciting worldwide extreme sport, now complete with chainsaw log cutting and all the adrenaline of fans cheering for their favorite athletes.
Calvin grew up in Peacham, and spent a lot of time in the woods with his father who was a forester. Together they tapped trees and sugared. A natural athlete, Calvin played hockey and graduated from the St. Johnsbury Academy in 2000 where he met Alison. They got married in 2008 and began their family in 2010. Parents of three little ones, he and his wife Alison recently welcomed me into their 1790 Barnet farmhouse. We settled into the rustic kitchen and sat at a table that felt like a scene from the Walton’s. Alison, a nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in the birthing pavilion, was on her way home from ski patrol at Burke Mountain, so Calvin calmly bounced 16-month-old Wesley on one knee, reached across the table where his two daughters were drawing and helped younger sister, Quinn draw a snowman to match big sister, Sawyer’s; complete with matching buttons, arms and hair! Clearly an efficient multi-tasker, right away Calvin’s down-to-earth demeanor led into a story of his progression from a collegiate to a professional lumberjack competitor, over a decade of fine-tuning complex wood cutting techniques, working as a consulting forester for private landowners, logging, sugaring and raising a beautiful family.
“Going to college to become a forester just seemed to be the natural path for me,” he explained. “I wanted to ski and hunt in different scenery so I started at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana.” It was there that Calvin learned more about lumberjack sports and he soon joined the college team. Almost every weekend consisted of traveling to compete with other college teams, often in a surrounding northwest state.
In the STIHL® Timbersports® series, collegiate and professional lumberjack athletes compete in six woodcutting disciplines based on traditional logging skills. Yes, professional lumberjack athletes - some people make a living competing. Competitors are from wood industry professions, professionals, and other random jobs, even a lawyer, but not a lot of loggers.
Having celebrated their 30th anniversary last summer, the STIHL® Timbersports® series is watched by over 20 million fans annually in about 60 countries on networks such as ABC, Eurosport, ESPN and The Outdoor Channel. Disciplines include three saw events - Stock Saw, Hot Saw, and Single Buck; and three axe events - Underhand Chop, the Standing Block Chop and Springboard Chop.
Although Calvin’s best event is the standing block chop which mimics the felling of a 12 to 14 inch tree with an axe, his favorite discipline is the springboard chop. As described by STIHL® Timbersports®,
“A discipline based on the need for old-time loggers to establish a cutting platform above the massive root bases of old growth trees, the competitor uses an ax to chop pockets into a nine-foot poplar pole and then place six-inch wide springboard platforms into the pockets. Climbing up on the springboards, the competitor chops through a 12-inch diameter white pine log at the top of the pole. This discipline is a true challenge of strength and dexterity, because the competitor must power through the chop while balancing seven to eight feet in the air.”
Calvin accomplishes this feat in about a minute and a half. Chainmail protects the legs and feet from errant swings of the axe. He loves it, but also says it’s frustrating, “You have to develop 1/16” inch accuracy with the axe while still swinging as hard as you can, to make the hole (pocket) and get the springboard to hold properly. Four hits makes a perfect hole. Different angles on every hit.”
As I continue my conversation with Calvin, Alison is doing the dishes. When I ask him about his axes, Alison happily chimes in, “His wonderful wife just bought him a new one!” For his Christmas/birthday gift, Alison bought him a new specially made axe. “Well you ruined a couple last summer!” she adds.
Calvin says if someone makes 10 identical looking axes, they all chop differently. “If you have 50 axes, you might have one really good one, so you save it for competition.” Alison adds that generally these axes come out of Australia or New Zealand and finding someone good to do the grinding is another factor. Calvin prefers the way his axes chop when they are ground by a friend and fellow competitor who went to Australia where he learned the art of grinding axe heads.
Calvin trains four to five hours a week, 30 weeks a year. This includes splitting seven to ten cords of firewood annually, with an axe. With every swing, he is perfecting his technique. He estimates that including competitions and training, he’s probably split - by hand - over 100 cords of wood over the past decade or so, needing to replace a few axes a year.
“It’s hard to explain what goes through my mind with each swing of the axe. It’s all physics and building energy. With each swing I maximize the energy that I can deliver into a piece of wood from the axe head. I pull the handle down and leave the axe head high to whip it at the last millisecond, trying to cut the wood in as few hits as possible. The technique is amazing and can allow people to cut faster and harder, the size of the person doesn’t matter. Expertise in technique is what makes the difference.” One chop is about a second, so every swing matters in competition.
He explains that in Australia and New Zealand, they start competing as young as 5 to 8 years old. “You don’t reach your chopping potential for at least ten years. Unlike baseball or basketball, prime is at 40 in this sport and guys are still competitive at 50. Fifty year olds can beat 20 year olds.”
Calvin speaks enthusiastically about all of his events and competitions he’s done over the past thirteen years. He began competing on the college team at Flathead and continued competing on the University of Montana team where he earned his bachelor’s degree in forestry in 2004. After returning to Vermont, he established Willard Forestry where he coordinates timber sales for private landowners, as well as current use applications for property tax deductions. He also continued to pursue logger sports competing in local competitions, as well as larger events in Maine and New Hampshire.
“From May to October, somewhere in the northeast, there are competitions every weekend.”
When he does the two-man buck, he’s part of a network of athletes who call each other to decide which events they’ll be attending and who they will team up with. Two people are also on a team for a log roll event where a peavey (a four foot pole with a hook) is used to guide the log 40 feet to hit two pins and return to two pins. He’s done the axe throw to a 20 foot target. “That’s fun. It’s like darts with an axe.”
Calvin used to attend nearly every local event. He thinks highly of the local events and those who make the great efforts to organize them, but as his competition skills have improved (he ranked 7th in the nation in 2014) and his time has become more occupied with raising a family, expanding their sugarbush from 1,000 to 9,000 taps and the progression of his professional career, he now concentrates on competing in the larger competitions.
In 2012 Calvin went pro with STIHL® Timbersports® joining 39 other competitors selected from over 400 applicants to be on the U.S. team. He further “made the cut” through the STIHL® Timbersports® Pro Qualifier and the U.S. Championship to be one of four pros to compete in the STIHL® Timbersports® World Championship in November. A very exciting moment in their lives, Calvin got the fastest time on the stock saw at the U.S. Championships in New York City’s Central Park last June. His 10.11 second time beat the next best time by 5 milliseconds!
With the stock saw Calvin says, “The technique is listening. You’re listening for the sweet spot in the motor. You don’t want to slow down the motor too much, but if you don’t apply enough pressure, then you’re not maximizing the amount of wood you could be cutting. It’s a real fine line, sometimes less than 1/10 of a second is win or lose.”
Each competitor owns his own hot saw. Calvin’s was built in Chico, CA with a Honda CR250 dirt bike motor (five times the size of a typical chainsaw engine), weighs around 60-70 pounds and will cut through a 20 inch log in less than a second. As seen in the photo with his, about it Calvin says, “If you can get it started, it’s push and pull as hard as you can.”
His adrenaline rushing win in Central Park put him on the US Team, and with Alison, he headed to Poznan, Poland to compete in the Stihl Timbersports World Championship held on November 13th and 14th. The World Championship attracts up to 10,000 spectators. The trip included two days of practice in Sweden with the Swedish team before going on to Poland for a day of sightseeing and two days of competition. STIHL® Timbersports® supplied the wood so that the US team could practice at the Swedish team’s facility. Upon arrival, Alison said the Swedish training facility was very nice and they had specially hung the American flag side by side with the Swedish flag giving them a very warm welcome.
New friendships were built on the trip. The Americans are grateful for the generous hospitality offered by their Swedish hosts. The U.S. team was graciously invited to dinner at the homes of members of the Swedish team for both nights in Sweden. One of the brothers of a Swedish competitor roasted a pig all day at his house and they all had a special dinner together the first night. They made a lot of friends and now have open invitations to stay in Sweden, Australia and New Zealand.
The World Competition is divided into two events; day one is the standard individual competition in the six disciplines and day two is a four-event team relay that excludes the Hot Saw and the Springboard. On the world level, the Australians and New Zealanders are the leaders. The U.S. team is closely matched with and were hoping to beat the Canadian team - which they did by placing third overall on day two!
Although the Polish team had the home team advantage and the cheers of the entire stadium whenever they competed while the other teams had much smaller cheering contingents, Alison says, “The sportsmanship is like no other sport I’ve ever seen. Rival teams cheer each other on.” Encouragement and cheers also came in as Tweets were constantly scrolling by on the stadium big screen from all over the world. Alison and Calvin just happened to catch, ‘Go Calvin! Cheering you on from Vermont!’ They send thanks to whomever that was. They missed the name of the person who sent the Tweet, but Alison said it gave them a great feeling of not being so alone.
Now back home, the Willards are busy building a sugarhouse to turn their hobby into a sugaring business known as the Willard Sugar Shack, soon to be found under that name on Facebook. This fall, look for Calvin who plans on competing locally at the Fryeburg Fair in Maine and the North Haverhill Fair in New Hampshire. Having been competing for only 13 years, Calvin’s potential is yet to be tapped.