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Jonathan Blais learned all about toiling in obscurity as an offensive lineman on the football team at Polyvalente Benoît-Vachon in Sainte-Marie, Que.
"Everybody knows the star quarterback or the running back who scores 15 touchdowns," said the Farm Management and Technology senior. "But an offensive lineman only gets noticed when he screws up."
On the surface then, it might seem strange that upon his arrival at McGill's Macdonald Campus, the strapping 200-pounder decided to climb out of the athletic shadows by taking up competitive lumberjacking, a sport so on the fringe that it makes an offensive lineman-sighting seem like the Beatles landing at JFK Airport.
But a funny thing happened on the way to certain anonymity. Blais grabbed the spotlight. Despite having virtually no experience as a lumberjack — his family swine farm in St. Elzéar, Que. has "no trees and just a little brush" — Blais has demonstrated an amazing proficiency for turning trees into toothpicks by using hand saws, axes and chain saws.
Last year, in just his second lumberjacking competition, Blais helped the Mac men's team win the Canadian Intercollegiate Lumberjacking Association championship. He was also in the running for the national individual title, being edged out by Mario Bourque of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College by just two points in the final chain saw event in the season's last competition.
Based on his strong performance, Blais earned a berth in the STIHL® TIMBERSPORT® Collegiate Series Championship in Stillwater, Minn. — the most prestigious collegiate lumberjack competition in North America. Squaring off against competitors who were as much as eight years his senior, the 19-year-old turned heads by winning the title with some last-event heroics of his own. Whizzing through the chain saw event, in which competitors must cut through a log as quickly as possible twice, Blais beat American favourite Gary Williamson by a single point.
"It was pretty stressful," laughed Blais, who is preparing for the Macdonald Campus Woodsmen Competition on Jan. 27. "There were 1,000 people watching and cameras everywhere watching our every move. I wasn't used to that."
As with many fringe sports, lumberjacking suffers from a number of misconceptions, the first being that it is all about brute strength. "The sport is demanding in a lot of ways," said Blais. "It requires speed and precision, especially when you're chopping. The best guys in the world can hit the same spot 15 times in under 10 seconds. If your conditioning is no good, your axe will be all over the place."
During the university season, Blais has four two-hour practices a week with his Mac teammates. Befitting the sport's rugged appeal, the sessions are not for the faint-of-heart, beginning with push-ups in the snow at 6 am in a small clearing at the Morgan Arboretum. Blais supplements this by pumping lots of iron in the weight room and working on his cardio. He manages to keep up his training regimen even in the summer despite the fact that he often puts in 10-12 hour days on the family farm.
The hard work is paying off. His victory in Minnesota qualified him to compete in the professional circuit of the STIHL® TIMBERSPORT® later this year. "This is with the big boys," said Blais. Big boys like New Zealander David Bolstad, a 6'5" 250-pound champion chopper who first took up the sport at the age of seven.
"Just being able to compete with these guys is huge," Blais said. "It'll be the chance of a lifetime."
The Macdonald Campus Woodsmen Competition will be held at the Mac campus from 8 am to 4 pm on Jan. 27. More information.