June 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Lumberjills

By Jenny Valentish
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Once a male-heavy sport contested by dynastic families, competitive woodchopping is increasingly attracting strong women

A few years ago, Scout Symons sat in the sun for hours at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, feeling the skin redden on the back of her neck. This was her introduction to the sport of woodchopping and sawing, and she wasn’t about to move. Timbersports always draws a crowd – it’s a spectacle, a skill, and a connection to a practical way of life most of us have never known – but for Symons, it suddenly seemed like a calling.

“I sat there, getting sunburnt as hell, saying, ‘I want to do this! How do you do this?’” she recalls.

Symons, who is 29, is head of a boarding house at an all-girls school, and also a strength athlete. When we talk, there’s a cluster of medals and trophies behind her, for powerlifting, weightlifting and strongman titles. She’s yet to win any woodchopping baubles, though: she’s up against competitors who might have been chopping since they were children.

“I’m the type of girl who’ll just rock up to somewhere and not feel weird about it, but in my first competition in Berowra I got annihilated,” she says, laughing. “I went in the novice chop and I was up there for a really long time. The good things is, the woodchopping community has the nicest people you’ll ever meet, so even though I was still slugging away long after everyone else had finished, I got the longest cheer because they love the underdog.”

In contrast to Symons, Amanda Beams is a two-time Stihl Timbersports Australian Women’s Champion. The 50-year-old is part of a woodchopping dynasty – which is historically how women have found their way into the sport. Beams lives in Tasmania (where the sport is thought to have its origins, the first championship being held in 1891 in Latrobe), and her father was a timber cutter by profession who also competed. Her brother, uncle, husband and two sons have all done stints in the arena, and Beams herself started at age 16.

When we talk, Beams is dressed head to toe in Stihl gear, with a big Stihl banner hung behind her in the garage where she trains. The German manufacturer of chainsaws and other power equipment has been holding the Stihl Timbersports championships – its tagline: “the original extreme sport” – since 1985, coming to Australia in 2015.

“Women got introduced into the sport by the sawing discipline as Jack and Jill sawers,” says Beams. “So we always competed with a male. From there, women have grown to have our own Jill and Jills, single bucks, cutting ‘underhands’ and teams races, all mixed in with the guys, but also in our own division.”

At the last Stihl World Championship – for men only – held in Prague in 2019, the Australian team, the Chopperoos, came out on top of 20 competing countries. It was their sixth win over the years, making them one of Australia’s most successful sporting teams of all time. At present there’s no opportunity for Beams to compete at a world championship: while the popularity of woodchopping among women is growing in Europe and Asia, it’s much smaller than in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

It was once practically unheard of for people of any gender to get into the sport if woodchopping was not “in the blood”, as Beams puts it. But that’s all changing. In part, the newfound interest comes from the strongman community. Strongman, which became codified as a sport in the late 1970s, sees competitors lift “atlas stones” and logs, carry refrigerators, flip tyres and pull trucks. It’s a more rough-and-ready, egalitarian sport than most, one which has separate gender categories and has seen a sharp rise in female athletes in recent years as strength and bulk becomes more covetable.

Symons’ Instagram handle is @barbellsbeforeboys, and she has a T-shirt range for sale. Her partner is a strongman athlete too – they met at Malaysia’s Strongest Man and Woman event.

“It doesn’t matter what your body looks like,” Symons says, “it’s what it can do – and my body can lift a car. It makes you feel like you’re unstoppable. People that do strongman want other people to feel how we feel.” Symons enjoys woodchopping for the same reason, although she stresses that being strong isn’t a shortcut into the sport. “It’s all technique,” she says. “I thought I was gonna kill this, but a year in, I’m still not very good.”

She has now competed three times, most recently at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, a few years after that initial gawk at the event. She came last in her category, the underhand, but admits that entering was a bit ambitious for someone “new and shit”. The dream is to get her own axe, but they start at around $700 so she’s working with a club axe for now.

Although there are woodchopping associations all over Australia, the sport is still a tough one to commit to if you’re a city dweller. Symons joined the Metropolitan Axemen’s Association, which trains at the Hawkesbury Showground on Thursday afternoons. It’s a 90-minute drive from where she works in Sydney.

“We talk a lot of shit, and sometimes we have a barbecue,” Symons says. “We share food, we chop wood. I could be out there until 8pm. I grew up in Casino and it’s like my injection of home because they’re all full-on country blokes.”

Beams enjoys the social aspect of the sport, too. In Tasmania, prior to COVID-19, she and her husband, Dale, might compete every weekend from October to April and see the same familiar faces. “We call it our woodchopping family. You don’t see them for a little while but when we do come together, it’s just like where we last left off: have a few beers, a wonderful atmosphere. But in saying that, when it’s go-time, she’s on!”

By her admission, Beams has a competitive nature, and has been involved in team sports her whole life. She says that, in the woodchopping community, “there’s a team of girls that are all very professional in what they do … I wouldn’t say that I’m a mentor to them, but they’re all striving to beat me. I’ve got the target on my back, pretty much.”

At the Stihl Timbersports Australian Trophy 2021, held in Melbourne at St Kilda’s foreshore in May, Beams didn’t get the women’s win – she was close to a world record for her underhand chop but was disqualified for a technicality. Symons was watching and was impressed. She’d gone to see Beams compete, and the performance spurred her on to train harder.

“At the Royal, where I came last, a lady came up to me with her two daughters afterwards and said, ‘That’s so important for my girls to see,’” Symons recalls with a smile. “She said, ‘We love that you are up there with all those blokes just chopping away – and you didn’t stop.’”

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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