By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — If Middlebury College students are familiar with that oft-repeated idiom, “as easy as falling off a log,” they didn’t let on Sunday morning as they gamely took their marks on a Western Red Cedar log bobbing placidly in the warm waters of the college Natatorium.
There, 13 competitors faced off against each other — and the slippery, wily log — in the second annual Middlebury Logrolling Tournament.
“My mom says it’s like polka dancing uphill, but I don’t know if I agree with that,” laughed Abby Hoeschler, a junior at the college and the brains behind the logrolling championship. “It’s almost like getting on a treadmill that’s going to run forwards and backwards, and you don’t know when it’s going to do that.”
The Sunday incarnation of competitive logrolling was a far cry from the sport’s origins in the north woods, where lumberjacks perfected the art of balancing on precarious logs as they drove wood down icy rivers to far off mill towns.
At the college’s balmy, Olympic-size swimming pool, spectators cheered on the brave bunch of souls who stepped out onto the log. Adidas shorts and Speedo swimsuits replaces the spiked boots and wooly plaid of lumberjacks past.
But one thing remained: logrolling, be it on log-jammed rivers or college swimming pools, is harder than it looks.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The sport’s arrival at Middlebury a decade ago is thanks to the first family of logrolling: the Hoeschlers of LaCrosse, Wisc.
Katie, the eldest Hoeschler sister, matriculated at Middlebury in 1999. It was Katie who brought logrolling to campus, bringing along the massive cedar trunk that students now use in physical education classes. Close on her heels was younger sister Lizzy, and now Abby is keeping their logrolling legacy alive and well. All three have taught logrolling in the college pool — and all three have ranked consistently on the national logrolling scene.
At one point, Abby said, she and her sisters had nabbed the three top spots nationally. Last summer, Abby — one of the littlest logrollers competing — placed fourth at the international championships.
She’s at a disadvantage, Abby said, because she’s on the small side for a logroller. Heavier opponents are typically able to control the log, and the direction in which it spins. Were it a more popular sport, there would likely be weight classes — but in the absence of that luxury, Abby said she makes do by relying on fitness and agility.
She also has the benefit of having grown up on a log.
All three sisters — as well as their younger brother, a high school student at a boarding school in New Hampshire — have been logrolling since they were toddlers. Their mother, Judy Hoeschler, was a champion logroller in her own right. Judy took a class in 1969, when she was 12.
“She fell in love with it,” said Abby. Just four years later, at age 16, Judy nabbed the world championship.
When her children were small, Judy said, bringing them along to the logrolling classes that she taught at the local YMCA was easier than tracking down childcare, and as soon as they were old enough, she was propping them up on the log. That worked out to her children’s advantage. It’s a sport, Abby and her mother both admitted, that’s easier learned as a child than as an adult.
“Logrolling, as a sport, is a lot like learning to play an instrument, in that the learning curve is very steep,” said Judy.
But that hasn’t kept a steady stream of college students from taking their turn on the log in recent years — nor has it stopped older members of the college community from hopping on, either.
Danielle Rougeau, the assistant curator of special collections and archives at the college library, started rolling when she took a class with the second Hoeschler sister, Lizzy. Rougeau said she was originally attracted to the sport because she knew it would be “a beautiful balance sport,” and she ended up falling in love with the challenge.
Now, Rougeau, along with Abby, teaches logrolling at the college. She kept the classes alive between Abby’s sister’s graduation, and Abby’s own arrival at the college.
“It was really about just challenging yourself, and I think that test of balance is a beautiful thing,” said Rougeau. “You have to be strong, you have to be quick, you have to be mentally tough. To do this sport well you have to have all of that.”
Now, according to Judy Hoeschler, Rougeau is “the pied piper of logrolling here.”
As Sunday’s tournament geared up, Rougeau steadied a log in the water as competitors warmed up. But before long, she was up on the log
“Are you ready to roll?” Judy Hoeschler asked the competitors, and the audience, as she warmed up at the mic.
Sunday morning’s tournament drew an enthusiastic crowd of curious onlookers and devoted fans. (As a spectator sport, Judy Hoeschler said, logrolling can’t be beat.) Rollers divided up into two classes — beginner and intermediate.
Then, they were off.
In the round robin tournament, every match counted. Some rollers squealed as they tumbled from the logs, and others laughed as they emerged from the water, the log having bested them once again.
But for all of Sunday morning’s laughter, competitors were determined as they took to the logs, each concentrating on their opponent’s feet as the log spun forward and backward.
The newest among the beginners had only been logrolling for four weeks, after taking up the sport during a January physical education class.
Stephanie Halgren, a sophomore from Madison, N.J., said she took it up “completely on a whim.” She chatted with fellow beginner Lacey Elmore, a senior from Lawrence, Kan., before the competition heated up, and they agreed that it was one of those skills — a little like riding a bicycle — that you either can or can’t do.
Among the four beginners in Sunday’s match, it was Halgren and Elmore who battled for first place, facing off in a best-of-five match that came down to one final roll. In the end, it was Halgren who hit the water first, giving Elmore the title in their class, but the two girls laughed and embraced in the water after the match was done. Luisa Covaria, a senior from Colombia, took third.
The intermediate class was larger — and more competitive. More experienced logrollers among the group had been practicing for years, and several had last year’s tournament in mind as they geared up for the main event.
“Eric (Harvey) and Dave (Small) have been rolling pretty even in practice,” said Katie Crecelius, a senior, when asked about her competition. She came in second last year behind Small, also a senior.
But when Crecelius took to the log, she was as sure-footed as any, successfully “rolling” 11-year-old competitor Elliot Abbot in an early match.
PHYSICS OF LOG ROLLING
It’s a safe sport, all of Sunday’s competitors agreed. The simple physics behind a rolling log mean that logroller is propelled away from the log when he or she takes a tumble, and Judy Hoeschler said she’s never heard of a head injury in the sport. In fact, she said logrolling is far safer than any of the other sports her children have played.
The intermediate class came down to four main contenders. In the final few matches, Crecelius faced against the competition she’d anticipated: Harvey and Small. But in the end, it was Crecelius who came out on top this year, clinching the title. Harvey came in second, and last year’s champion, Small, held on for third. Placing just off the podium was Abbott.
Though the sport of logrolling remains relatively obscure — only a few dozen individuals compete nationally — Sunday’s tournament suggested that the quirky endeavor remains alive and strong at Middlebury College. And on Saturday, Abby Hoeschler and Rougeau taught a logrolling class to area teens in a “Sister-to-Sister” event.
If Abby Hoeschler has anything to say about it, she’d love to bring the sport to more local kids and would-be enthusiasts.
“It just attracts a really great, individualistic group of people,” said Judy Hoeschler, who has been logroller now for 40 years. “It still continues to intrigue people.”
For more photos of Sunday’s logrolling tournament, check out a slideshow at our Web site, www.addisonindependent.com.