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 stalled 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 billing, 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.
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 friends."
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 billing, 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 birler's description.