IF YOU grow up in Hayward, Wis., your vision of the sporting
world tends to be skewed. Tina Salzman grew up in Hayward. "I
always thought logrolling was the most popular sport there was,
bigger than football, bigger than basketball," says Salzman, 21,
a two-time logrolling world champion. "I started taking
logrolling lessons when I was 11, and there were 80 kids in my
class. That was just about every kid in town. When I started
traveling, I couldn't believe there were people who didn't know
anything about logrolling."
Hayward (pop. 1,698) is the logrolling center of the universe.
It is in a timber-rich region 50 miles south of Lake Superior
and is home to logrolling schools, logrolling tournaments and
logrolling heroes. It is where the International Logrolling
Association (ILRA) holds its annual meeting. And each July,
Hayward hosts the World Logrolling Championships.
The sport of logrolling, also called birling, is refreshingly
uncomplicated. It's a remnant of the old log-drive days more
than a century ago, when lumberjacks known as river pigs would
ride atop massive flotillas of timber, guiding the logs
downstream and breaking up jams. The first championships were
held in Omaha in 1898. Now there are hundreds of professional
birling contests every summer, in towns such as Wausau, Wis.;
Einim Claw, Wash.; and Kaslo, B.C. The sport's basic necessities
are two people, one lake and one log. Competing rollers step off
a dock and onto opposite ends of a floating log, stabilizing
themselves by grasping long poles held by attendants. When both
rollers are balanced, the referee blows a whistle. The poles are
dropped, and the contest is on.
A logrolling match has few rules. A person can rock the log,
stop the log, reverse the spin, intensify the spin, even extend
a foot and kick water into an opponent's face, which top birlers
do with astonishing accuracy. Anything goes, except for physical
contact, crossing the log's center line, and spitting tobacco
juice in your opponent's eye (a common tactic 40 years ago). To
help maintain footing, competitors wear customized birling
shoes--soccer cleats whose soles are embellished with dozens of
extra spikes. A roll ends when one person falls into the lake.
If both rollers slip, the loser is the one who falls in first.
Matches are either best-of-three or best-of-five rolls.
November 27, 1995
Salzman, Bonnie Pendleton, Brian Duffy and Dan McDonough
dominate the current logrolling scene. They are all fiercely
competitive athletes. "Logrolling is like boxing: If you're too
nice, you won't go anywhere," says Duffy, 27, another
Hayward-reared logrolling luminary. "When you're rolling against
someone you're in serious competition with, you can't be
One birler who prefers to go unnamed describes the relationships
between the top rollers in the men's and women's division more
bluntly: "Brian and Dan hate each other, and Tina and Bonnie
hate each other."
The 1995 World Logrolling Championships, held in conjunction
with the Lumberjack World Championships, took place July 28?30
in Hayward's Lumberjack Bowl, a 5,000-seat open-air arena
surrounding a marshy inlet of the Namekagon River. The
logrolling championships are a single-elimination tournament
contested over three days; this year the men's and women's
winners each pocketed $1,180. The early rounds went as expected,
and when it was time for the finals, the pairings were no
surprise: Duffy versus McDonough; Salzman against Pendleton.
The stadium was jammed for the climactic rolls. It was a
blindingly sunny day, cloudless and utterly still, and the
spectators gorged themselves on pints of Lumberjack Lager and
grilled turkey legs the size of squash racquets. These people
know birling, and they applauded wildly for deft footwork,
miraculous recoveries and dramatic falls.
The men's match was first. For the seventh straight year, Duffy
and McDonough faced each other. They had split the previous six
world championships. "I devote all my training time specifically
to beating Dan," Duffy said just before he stepped onto the log.
Duffy, who earns his living selling wood-burning stoves in
Hayward, has a frat boy's demeanor and Baywatch good looks. He
represents the new generation of rollers: Mr. Hollywood, some
veterans call him. "Hip and young and Polo and GQ" is one
McDonough, meanwhile, is Mr. Midwest: Wrangler and Field and
Stream would be his trademarks. Thirty-four years old, he lives
and breaths logrolling. McDonough is the president of the ILRA,
and he's the nation's chief maker of birling logs, which he
produces at his home in Ralph, Mich. McDonough is also intense
to the point of masochism. In winter he cracks holes in the ice
of his training pond, dons neoprene socks and practices seven
times a week, for a total of 20 hours.
As the two finalists steadied themselves on the log to begin the
championship roll, McDonough appeared more nervous than Duffy.
Earlier in the day McDonough admitted that he still hadn't
recovered mentally from the '94 championship, in which Duffy
came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2. McDonough's nervousness
wasn't helped by the unavoidable presence of Duffy's family.
Most of Duffy's 10 siblings and 10 nieces and nephews had
commandeered an entire section of the stands, and all were
wearing purple CLUB DUFFY T-shirts and roaring their support.
The command was given, and the match began. McDonough, who at 6
feet and 190 pounds is bigger and stronger than the 5'9",
160-pound Duffy, immediately took control of the log. He spun it
forward and back, stopped it short and kicked water. Duffy
bobbed along. McDonough spun the log like a centrifuge, creating
waves big enough to surf on. Duffy stayed with him.
Competition logs are sleek, 12-foot cylinders of red cedar. They
are lathe-turned to one of four diameters: 15, 14, 13 or 12
inches. Matches begin on a 15-inch log, and if a winner hasn't
been determined after a given time, they proceed to the smaller,
faster logs. (If they reach the 12-incher, there's no time
limit.) After two minutes and no falls, Duffy and McDonough
moved to a 14-inch log. Four minutes later they switched to the
13. Still no falls. Both men rolled in a slight crouch, like
speed skaters, arms out for balance. They stared at each other's
feet, waiting to take advantage of the tiniest misstep.
Though the pros make it appear graceful and, at times,
effortless, logrolling is extremely difficult to learn.
"Nothing's easier than falling off a log" is a birling maxim.
Staying on requires years of practice (most top rollers begin
birling in elementary school) and a willingness to live without
a good portion of one's shin and forearm skin. "To be a good
logroller," says McDonough, "you need a sprinter's speed, a
tightrope walker's balance and a cat's mortal fear of water."
In the final it was McDonough who cracked first, getting his
weight too far forward and falling face-first into the lake.
Then Duffy quickly wrapped up his fourth title, winning three
rolls to none. Though McDonough vowed revenge, it appeared Duffy
had strengthened his hold on the men's division.
Next came the Salzman-Pendleton match. This was their fourth
year in a row in the final; Salzman won the first meeting,
Pendleton the next two. In both appearance and logrolling style,
they are almost complete opposites. The fiery and rugged
Salzman, a senior at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.,
hoboes on the birling circuit all summer, earning an average of
$300 per week. Her legs are corded with muscles, and she birls
like a bucking horse, in spasms of bobs, reverses, runs and
kicks. "I'm a total powerhouse," says Salzman, who is 5'6" and
weighs 148 pounds. "The other women hang on for dear life."
The 5'6", 120-pound Pendleton is as thin as a sapling, with
preternatural foot speed and a barnaclelike ability to stick to
a log. At 30 she is a logrolling old-timer. She turned pro at 16
and won her first world championship at 18. Like Duffy she's a
defensive roller, patient and cautious--in birling parlance, a
floater. "Tina wants to be the aggressor, so I let her," says
Pendleton. "When she wears herself out, I dunk her."
In the final the women battled all the way down to the 12-inch
log--called the toothpick--with Salzman falling once and Pendleton
not at all. There was little either could do to fool the other.
Salzman stomped on the log, her hands chopping the air.
Pendleton rode the timber like a surfer, her arms waving so
casually that she could have held a glass of Chablis and not
spilled a drop. The birlers' combined weight submerged the
toothpick, giving spectators the impression that the two women
were tap-dancing on water.
Salzman finally rattled Pendleton loose, and the match was tied.
They exchanged falls once again, and the championship came down
to a single roll. The log whirled in the water, hissing with
speed. The women struggled to stay atop, both gradually losing
balance, fighting to maintain contact with the log. The log
whipped faster. A fall was imminent. And in seconds it came: The
women crashed into the lake simultaneously. The crowd hushed.
The judges huddled. The spin was declared a tie--they had to roll
Salzman, however, was exhausted. Her chief weapon--high-energy
aggression--had been clipped. In short order, Pendleton won the
title for the third straight year. She performed a grand jete
onto the dock and swung her fiance, Ron Kubarek, in an embrace.
An hour later, after the awards had been given out, they would
get married in a waterside ceremony.
Salzman wrinkled her nose, fighting tears, and stormed off. They
didn't shake hands.
Michael Finkel tried logrolling in Hayward and spent more time
in the water than on the wood.