Dave Jewett has multiple wood-splitting world records – and only one kidney

September 16, 2013

The vomiting lasted all night. There he was, Dave Jewett – a strapping man in his late 30s, a real-life professional lumberjack and the manliest man you’d ever meet, on the eve of a 2007 Timbersports tournament – puking like a drunken varsity student.

Because these tournaments earn the lumberjacks bragging rights and only a few thousand bucks, Jewett was sharing a hotel room with Jean-Pierre Mercier, his partner in the two-man crosscut event.

“In the morning,” Mercier remembers, “I asked him, ‘Is something wrong?’ He said, ‘Oh, no, no. Just a cold.’”

But when the ultracompetitive Jewett couldn’t finish one of his timed woodcutting events because of fatigue, even he had to admit there was a problem. He drove the 1 400km from Wisconsin back home to upstate New York in 18 hours, through a blizzard, to have blood drawn. He’d been experiencing other symptoms too – he couldn’t stay warm at night, even under sheets and a sleeping bag, with a fire roaring.
While waiting for his blood test results, he returned to splitting wood. “I was at work the day the doctor called and said, ‘You need to go straight to the hospital.’”

Jewett finished unloading a trailer of wood (“I was like, ‘If I’m dead, I’m dead anyway. Might as well unload the trailer’”) and checked himself in. He’d lost 85% of his renal function and had stage five kidney failure. There is no stage six, Jewett says. “You’re done after that.”

Five years later, at age 43, Jewett stands behind a decommissioned dairy barn in his hometown of Pittsford, New York, surveying stack upon stack of maple, ash, walnut and oak. “This is all me,” he says. “Twenty-five thousand pieces of wood, split with an axe and stacked by hand. This is my training area.”

After a successful kidney transplant (the donor was his father), Jewett is back in action as a Timbersports star. It’s clear to him now that ignoring the problem was more stubbornness than courage – Jewett had no family history of kidney disease and assumed he could fight through the symptoms – but that same iron will has driven his recovery. Employing a relentless exercise regimen, he’s fought his way back into the best shape of his life.

Jewett rides a bike 100km a week. He plays soccer three nights a week. He does 90 minutes of Timbersports training every day – that’s 90 minutes of sawing or swinging an axe, a routine all about explosive power.

With the right technique, Jewett says, he’ll rely more on muscle mass and core strength than on his lungs, which is good because he still tires more quickly than he’d like. Timbersports, he says, is “more of a drag race than a grand prix.” It requires rowing and pulling motions in the arms, shoulders, and back, plus a solid foundation in his quads and hamstrings.

A few times a week, he lifts rudimentary free weights in his unfinished basement. “I could probably bench close to 140kg,” Jewett says, “if I had 140kg.” So he just piles every weight he has onto the bar and then lets it rip. He also does pull-downs, military presses, biceps curls, push-ups. He tries to knock out the whole routine in 30 minutes, with minimal rest – explosive, like splitting wood.
“So I’ll do that one day, and the next day I’ll do a whole workout on the pull-up bar,” he says.

“I’ll do six workouts on the pull-up bar. Then I’ll take a couple of days off to ride my bike and chop wood. And then I’ll go back and do it again.”

Jewett lives in a 90-year-old bungalow about a block from his old high school. The house is full of wood: oak floors, chestnut detailing, a table made from old-growth maple. In a case on the kitchen counter are his pills: Jewett takes nine in the morning and six at night. They’re a reminder of his vulnerability, but he doesn’t let his condition define him. He doesn’t even use his transplant as motivation when training. He just takes his medicine and then goes about building the strongest body he can. “They say you peak around 40. I’m 43. I dunno, I broke two world records already this year.”

He recently won his third Timbersports world championship in the one-man crosscut event, nicknamed the “misery whip,” by dragging a two metre steel blade through a 50cm white pine log in 13 seconds. He also competes in the springboard, climbing a tree using platforms about 25cm wide. And he does the hot saw, wielding a 25- to 30kg chain saw powered by a raging 325cc engine.

Jewett competes in 15 to 20 tournaments a year; he placed third overall in the 2012 Stihl Timbersports series national championships. He’s resumed his side businesses too: chain saw carving (eagles, bears) and a seasonal gig selling wreaths and Christmas trees at the Pittsford Dairy, which has adopted Jewett as a kind of mascot. The company store even sells an ice cream flavour called Lumberjacked.

Indeed, all of Pittsford, a town of 30 000, has rallied around its native son. Lumberjacks, after all, are self-insured, and kidney surgery is not cheap. Jewett had lost his sponsorships and finally had to stop working. So after his transplant, a local bar raised R200 000 toward his medical bills in an event organised by his friend Shannon Hookway. They even had “Do It for Jewett” temporary tattoos. “There isn’t a person who lives in this town, or anywhere near it, who wasn’t here,” Hookway says.

“Certainly in that little village of his, he’s a god,” says sports columnist Leo Roth. “Everyone knows who Dave Jewett is.”