Nancy Zalewski aims for another title

AP Photo/The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram/Paul M. Walsh

Nancy Zalewski, 43, was drawn to lumberjacking because of the need for strength more than speed.

Why didn't you ever become a competitive lumberjack?

Mike Sullivan had just met Nancy Zalewski when he posed the question. Growing up in Hayward, Wis., Zalewski followed the sport as a little girl attending the annual Lumberjack World Championships in her hometown. She was at a competition in Missouri when she met Sullivan through a mutual friend.

Sullivan was a regular on the lumberjack circuit at the time and recognized Zalewski's potential. She looked strong to him, and with her roots in Hayward, he thought it was a natural fit.

"You'd be good at it," Sullivan said at the time.

Fast-forward 14 years and Zalewski, 43, is an eight-time All-Around Lady Jill Champion and world-record holder. As she prepares to return home for the Lumberjack World Championships from Thursday through Saturday, Zalewski is unlike other athletes.

She has a day job as a chemist and moonlights as a ski instructor. But having to find a balance hasn't stopped Zalewski from being one of the top female lumberjacks.

"It looked like something to get involved in, and that's about all I can tell you," Zalewski said. "What ran through my mind was that it's a strength event, so I think I can do this."

The world championships ran in Zalewski's blood long before she met Sullivan. Her mom helped organize the competition and her dad was a timer. In watching the sport, Zalewski was drawn to it because it required strength more than speed. The competitions are a balance between going fast and keeping technique, but the sawing or chopping speed is bolstered by power.

Sullivan offered to introduce her to a friend of his in Illinois with whom to train. Zalewski was willing to drive from her home in Wisconsin to Illinois to learn the Jack and Jill sawing event -- the competition she started on as Sullivan's partner.

After the two placed in the top three at their first competition together, Sullivan knew she'd excel in other events, too. They've been partners in the man and woman cross-cut sawing event since, and Sullivan said Zalewski's enthusiasm for the sport has kept him from retiring.

She learned to chop as she became more invested in the sport, and she'll be competing in three events this year in Hayward: Jack and Jill, Women's Single Buck and Underhand Chop -- an event in which she set the world record in 2011. But even with her success, Zalewski knew she couldn't make a living as a competitive lumberjack.

Sullivan says Zalewski is a meticulous planner, calling him in June about competitions in November. When she takes a break from lumberjacking in the winter months, she does ski instructing with a children's program. With a chemist job that doesn't come home with her, Zalewski is able to train at her home, where she has indoor and outdoor areas dedicated to sawing and chopping. She's worked at her company long enough to have ample vacation days dedicated to various lumberjack competitions. Her co-workers are aware of her accolades, often raving about Zalewski to clients.

"Everybody is pretty aware of when I'm gone and where I'm going," Zalewski said. "They'll say, 'Let us know how you did when you get back.'"

Zalewski relishes the opportunity to do for novice competitors what Sullivan and others did for her. In helping the lumberjack team at the University of Wisconsin's Stevens Point campus, Zalewski met Kate Witowski, who has started going to Zalewski's house for training. Zalewski has also loaned equipment to Witowski.

It was Zalewski's ability to balance her daily responsibility with her commitment to lumberjacking that initially surprised Witowski. She went with Zalewski to a local center for the financially disadvantaged. Zalewski brought clothes and food to the people there, and everyone already knew her name.

"I didn't know anything about the sport when I started competing," Witowski said. "I didn't know there were world championships and there were competitions like the one in Hayward. I didn't know Nancy as the world champion. I just was able to meet Nancy. I think she makes that really easy for anyone that she meets."

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