ONALASKA — Arms flailing, feet flying and concentration at a maximum, competitors at the ninth Three Rivers Roleo made the most of their time on the water.
Sixty-eight people, including 25 professionals and the rest in seven amateur classes, took turns on the logs Saturday, competing in best-of-five individual matches and moving through a bracket system to the finals.
Tournament director Katie Rick, 29, started the program with her siblings. The pro roller got her start at age 6 and serves as a trainer for both students and aspiring instructors.
“I have a passion for the sport,” Rick said. “It’s a great workout.”
Two people compete at a time, separated by a band in the center of a single western red cedar log. The first to fall is out. A running match involves both competitors facing the same direction, while a bucking match has them looking opposite directions. Logs come in various sizes, with the narrowest width the most difficult. If no one falls off in a set time, the runners take a brief break before continuing.
Lizzie Hoeschler-Horvitz, 33, a La Crosse native living in Minneapolis, started the sport at 7. Her mother, a seven-time world champion, got her hooked on the sport, and Hoeschler-Horvitz is a three time world champion herself.
“It’s a unique sport, fast-paced and action-packed,” Hoeschler-Horvitz said, “a sparring activity, very similar to boxing. The mental aspect is challenging as well. One wrong step and you’re down.”
Her oldest child, Henry, age 3½, has started practicing with his mom.
“He holds my hand while he moves his feet,” Hoeschler-Horvitz said. “It’s about getting him comfortable with balance. Log rolling is a mix of complex footwork and concentration.”
The sport is a family affair for 35-year-old Cassidy Scheer, too. His father was a four-time world champion who got his children involved at young ages. Birdsong considers himself the most aggressive of the pro-rollers, describing his tactics as risk-reward.
“I’m very competitive in nature,” he explained. “I use my weight and strength to manipulate the log. This is the lumberjack sport most representative of a battle.”
Scheer is one of the few rollers to kick the water in order to distract his opponent.
“I cede control when I take one foot off the log,” he said. “But kicking is a violent motion: The water strikes them in the face and clouds their vision.”
Log rolling has few rules beyond not crossing the center line or touching the opponent. Scheer says different body types use different methods to succeed.
“A more agile person might just ride it out, while others need to rely on focus,” he explained.
Margaret Bulk, 34, came from California to compete. Bulk recently purchased logs to use in the pool at her apartment complex after having little opportunity to practice for several years.
“The skill doesn’t’ leave you, but its harder than it looks,” Bulk said. “Staying fit can be a challenge. The sport is exhausting, but so much fun.”
The current world champion, Ellie Davenport, psyched herself up for the finals, jumping up and down while listening to her headphones. Davenport, who won the most tournaments overall last year, went on the win the women’s championship at the Roleo. Garrick Birdsong took the men’s title.
“You need that full set of skills,” Scheer said. “Even a great roller can lose if they don’t have the right focus every single second.”
Those interested in trying the sport can find programs at the La Crosse YMCA and the Onalaska and La Crosse parks and rec departments.
Just remember, you’ll need patience, balance and focus.
Focus of steel.