Stewart takes Tree Topping gold despite controversial cut
By Sam Eifling
Great Outdoor Games staff
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. The crowd had been chanting his name and friends were offering their congratulations, but Wade Stewart just needed a second to himself before the Tree Topping finals Sunday.
Someone asked him whether he was alright. Stewart nodded, then turned and crawled partway under the banners along the front of the bleachers, where he closed his eyes, put his chin on his closed fists and breathed deeply.
With a modicum of privacy, he visualized his brilliant but controversial semifinal victory and told himself to run it again, just as perfectly as he had before, only taking care to cut the disk from the log wholly.
"I was like, 'I've been too hyped-up, I just need to calm down,'" Stewart said. "I was like, 'I've got to get away.'"
Stewart not only re-ran his superb 38.95-second semifinal climb, he shaved off three-quarters of a second.
As important, he shortened his stroke near the end of his cut and shaved off the disk cleanly, proving to himself that he deserved to be racing for the gold after a fragment of log plied off and stuck to his disk.
The Tree Topping version of the hanging chad nearly kept him out of the finals.
"I thought, if I'm going to win this, I want to win it big-time," he said after earning his fourth ESPN Great Outdoor Games medal. "Hopefully I put everyone's doubt aside."
Defending champion Greg Hart, who finished his finals run in 45.09 and who normally prides himself on his sawing speed, had to acknowledge that there was no way he could outrun Stewart or out-saw him on the softer-than-normal wood.
"I don't think if I had a perfect run I could run a 38," the 41-year-old silver medalist said. "I'm happy with silver, and I'm glad to be beat by Wade."
The imprecise cut in Stewart's semifinal win against Brian Bartow left a stray wisp of un-cut wood hanging off his disk.
The competition paused until judges determined that the clinging shard was exactly an eighth of an inch thick, the smallest amount permissible to leave hanging, and allowed Stewart to advance.
The decision was in doubt for about 15 minutes, though. The crowd booed while the action stopped.
Stewart argued to event organizer Rob Scheer that there was no way he could have avoided breaking off the soft wood: "It's almost like you're asking a guy to slow up and not push."
Scheer, however, was adamant that a measurement would be taken: "The rule is the rule. We don't change it for anybody."
The competitors milled around while the judges took the wood and conferred. Stewart looked frazzled.
"I don't know what else what could I have done?" he asked. He took a tug off a bottle of Gatorade and spat orange-colored spit onto the ground a few feet from where his slice had landed and burst apart.
Scheer re-emerged, and, before informing Stewart that he was advancing, explained to him the sanctity of the rules.
Even when told he would advance, Stewart insisted that the rule be reviewed. Scheer assured him that would have to wait.
"It's so disheartening," Stewart said later, still troubled despite the gold medal.
"What can you do? I can't catch it and re-saw it. You feel so helpless.
"We have to get a rule that's more plainly written about it, because I don't want to see someone else in this position where they feel like, 'Gee, I know I'm proceeding but it's kind of tainted.' I don't want to feel that. So that last one, I just gave it everything I had."
His 38.20 final time redeemed him. Guy German, the multiple world record holder who lost to Stewart in the quarterfinals, approached him afterwards and told him softly: "Totally awesome. That was the most beautiful topping I've ever seen."
Stewart credited his win to a new, sharp-as-Einstein saw and a training regimen that included 400 push-ups a day, to improve his sawing speed. His climbing ability was never questioned, as he finished second only to Bartow in the Speed Climbing event a day earlier.
After the controversial semifinal, Bartow dropped to the consolation round, where he beat Ed Smith, 41.02 seconds to 51.50.
Smith couldn't beat the champion speed climber to the top, so he was expecting to make up lost time on the cut. Instead, one of his spurs popped out of the pole as he was completing his tie, and he nearly fell.
"I was at the same time trying to save my life and win a race," Smith said.
It appeared as though he opted to first save his life.
"It's a priority," he explained.
Bartow didn't appear disappointed with his bronze. During the deliberations on the outcome, Bartow had lobbied for Stewart to advance.
"He just kind of chipped out a little on some bad wood," Bartow said. "He just ripped it off too much, but he ripped off a legal amount. It was a fair cut either way. I was hoping they would give it to him."