Since when is log-rolling considered a liberal art? Since world-class competitor Katie Hoeschler started teaching it twice a week in the "natatorium" at Middlebury College. Hoeschler and her younger sister Lizzie -- who followed her sister to Vermont -- are standouts in a slippery sport that lives on in lumberjack circles and, increasingly, the Great Outdoor Games on ESPN.
The two siblings from Wisconsin are the timber-tackling equivalent of Venus and Serena Williams -- but nicer. They learned everything they know about the sport from their mother and coach, who won the world championship seven times before she retired two years ago at age 45. The sisters practice together, compete against each other and, in interviews, echo one another in Midwestern accents.
Did Middlebury officials know they were admitting dueling log-rollers?
"Oh, yeah. I sent a video," says Katie, a senior majoring in American Studies.
"I sent a video, too," parrots her sophomore sister, a Sociology and Anthropology major.
"They were excited about the fact that they have log-rollers at this school," Katie offers. "It's gotten them enormous amounts of media attention."
"Like the 'Today Show,'" Lizzie interrupts, referencing a segment that aired on NBC at the end of October. Features producer Mike Leonard spent a day and a half at Middlebury conducting interviews and getting footage. Multiple action shots showed the sisters -- in sports bras and shorts -- jogging effortlessly on opposite ends of the same spinning log.
Stylistically, the Hoeschlers are less in sync. Blonde-haired Lizzie, an accomplished ski racer, is more glamorous and extroverted than her older sister. "She's more the girlie-girl," Katie says of her sibling, who dates Olympic gold-medal skier Bode Miller. Quieter and more down-to-earth, makeup-free Katie plays rugby and looks like an L.L. Bean model. Predictably, I call attention to her red-and-black-checked wool jacket. "It's Ralph Lauren," she says with good-natured exasperation. "People always say, 'Oh, did you win that or something?'"
Log-rolling didn't start out as a competitive sport. It developed as a way of breaking up jams: "River piggers" used to run across and reroute floating trees using a pike pole and caulked boots. The same skills -- balance and fast foot work -- factor into the contemporary sport, which pits competitors against each other on the same log. But the goal is different.
"Basically you're trying to get the other person off the log," says Lizzie. "You can take a defensive stand and try to outlast them. Or take the offensive and try to kick them off. Like, if you're spinning it one way, you kick it to spin it the other way, to try to throw your opponent off. Or splash water in their eyes to try to distract them."
But first you have to learn how to stay vertical on a floating tree trunk -- a feat comparable to tightrope walking. "You'll get on it, take a couple of steps and then you'll fall," Lizzie predicts. "You have to be constantly moving your feet, even when the log isn't moving. If you get behind it, that's when you fall. Basically, you want to stay right on top of the log, and ahead of it. It's about figuring out where your body is on the log."
Among the Middlebury
student body, log-rolling attracts a different kind of tree-hugger. "It's definitely addicting," says Kate Orchard, one of two brave souls who have come out on a cold December night to wrangle a lathe-turned 12-foot cedar. It's one of two logs that are stored in a room off the pool -- the smaller-diameter one, which offers an even more challenging ride, is reserved for the Hoeschler sisters.
The "teaching log" has to be rolled on a dolly to the diving end of the pool, a spectacle that elicits stares from random swimmers who haven't witnessed it before. In competition, rollers wear souped-up sneakers with logging spikes to better control the 500-pound prop. But in practice it's bare feet on wet lumber covered in carpet -- to keep wood chips out of the pool and reduce wear and tear on the logs. The original delivery got a rise out of the guys in the Middlebury mailroom. Replacements cost $400.
Katie Hoeschler holds the timber steady between her legs while Orchard walks out to the far end. Orchard's feet are already moving in place when Hoeschler lets the log go. It spins -- fast -- but Orchard is anticipating the motion with little steps forward and back. Hoeschler's star student stays on top of it for about 15 seconds, which seems like an eternity.
Later, poolside, Orchard likens the experience to "being on a really, really small treadmill." She continues, "Once I was the only one who showed up. I could feel it the next day in my butt and legs. It was like squatting for an hour."
The other low roller, George McElroy, gets less of a work-out -- unless you count hoisting himself onto the log from the water every time he takes a turn. A skateboarder, he's got everything going for him: athleticism, coordination, persistence and a great Renaissance Man attitude. "When else in my life am I going to get an opportunity like this?" he asks with a big smile.
Unfortunately, he's not Paul Bunyan. Sometimes he tumbles forward off the log. Other times, backwards. On one occasion, he falls on top of it in a straddle position, which inspires winces all around. "Once I stayed up for six seconds," he boasts, looking to Hoeschler -- the official time keeper -- for confirmation. "Had I been counting, it would have been for four or five minutes."
Hoeschler acknowledges the "learning curve is pretty flat" in log-rolling. "It's a frustrating sport. But once you get it, all of a sudden it's really steep."
For Katie and Lizzie, it's aerobic, too. After a 10-minute dance on the log that takes her all around the pool, Katie is slightly winded. "People are like, "How can you do that? You make it look so easy." That's because we've been doing it forever."
The strong-legged sisters -- who grew up in sawmill country along the Mississippi River -- have been log-rolling since they were three. Their parents have a pond on their property that attracts log-rolling aunts, uncles, siblings and "a couple of other girls in town that are professional, too," Lizzie explains. "We all train together."
"It's kind of a sight," Katie adds.
As of this summer, their 15-year-old sister has also gone pro. That means three Hoeschlers will be among the 16 top-ranked women log-rollers in the Lumberjack World Champion-ships this July.
Nevertheless, Monday Night Log-Rolling is still a long way off. At the Great Outdoor Games, "We are always competing with the canine sports for coverage," says Katie, adding that she and her sisters hope their sport will someday be an Olympic event. Until then, she's doing her part to get the word down river.