Nancy Zalewski of Manitowoc demonstrates some of the ax skills that have helped make her a nine-time world champion lumberjack. She set a new world record in 2011 in the women's underhand chop with a time of 25.55 seconds (Matthew Apgar/HTR Media)
MANITOWOC (Sheboyganpress.com) - When world champion lumberjack Nancy Zalewski of Manitowoc swings an ax, bystanders can hear the power behind that swing as she expels each breath.
The cliche "like a hot knife through butter" comes to mind when she passes her 6-foot crosscut saw through a 16-inch log of white pine on her three acre-property on the city's south side where she practices her single buck sawing and other skills.
The teeth of a saw, much like the one she is wielding, injured her finger when she misjudged her grasp during a competition in Sidney, Australia, six year ago. It's the only time in the past 14 seasons of competing that she's been injured in a sport that combines speed and sharp instruments.
"There's been plenty of guys who put an ax through their foot," Zalewski said. "I know of guys who have taken off their big toe. It's a dangerous sport."
Zalewski, who's fond of all of her toes, slips a pair of chainmail foot protectors between her socks and shoes before practice and competitions. She also chalks up her hands to help steady her grip.
"Breathe, Nancy, breathe," she tells herself before sawing through a log. "That is the biggest mistake people make. They hold their breath. I just have to remind myself I've got to breathe."
Keys to success
The three keys to success are technique, power and having the proper gear, Zalewski said.
She should know. During the last weekend in July, Zalewski captured her ninth Women's All-Around Lumberjack World Championship in Hayward. In mid-August she became six-time Lumberjill World Champion in Boonville, N.Y.
Zalewski, 44, set a new world record in 2011 in the women's underhand (or horizontal) chop with a time of 25.55 seconds in Hayward. She also set the world's record in the women's single buck sawing competition in 2006 at Hayward with a time of 11.61 seconds.
A holder of so many world records that she has lost track, Zalewski estimates she has captured nearly 20 all together in at least five categories including Jack and Jill sawing, bow saw and Jill and Jill sawing.
"I'm successful at the sport because I'm big and I'm strong. I enjoy the sport. I want to grow in it," Zalewski said. "My goal is to be the best in the world. There are only three girls in the world who can beat me in the underhand chop."
She has an area in her backyard specially designed for perfecting her skills.
"It's not about cutting the block. It's about how you cut the block," Zalewski said. "Nothing you can do in the gym simulates chopping. Nothing you do in the gym simulates sawing. You have to get outside and do it."
She said she feels most confident in the single buck category, the first skill she mastered, and is just learning the standing block (or vertical) chop, which is being added to many world championship face-offs. Zalewski recently cut her first block of wood in that category.
"It was very nerve-racking because I had a few accomplished ax men watching me, but it was exciting. I finished it. Was I fast? Not on your life," she said.
More women competing
Zalewski is one of growing numbers of women competing in the rugged sport. Lumberjack competitions, which got their informal start between 70 and 90 years ago, were all male until about 30 years ago, she said.
"The women have worked really hard to break into this sport," Zalewski said. "We've worked very hard to show them that we know what we're doing and we're passionate about it."
The sport was a natural for Zalewski, who grew up in northwoods Hayward, and whose parents were involved in the Lumberjack World Championships there. She recalls helping her mother, who was executive director, by selling tickets as a youth.
Zalwski was late in getting her start in competition. She was 30 when she entered her first meet. In contrast, some children in Australia and New Zealand are introduced to the sport as early as age 5, she said.
It was Mike Sullivan, an accomplished ax man from Connecticut, who saw her potential.
Sullivan introduced her to Dennis Daun of Illinois, who began her training in sawing. Today, Zalewski is partners in the Jill and Jill competitions with Daun's daughter, Lindsay Daun. Laurence O'Toole later became her chopping coach.
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