COLUMBIA — Marissa Jo Daniel sat quietly in her MU dorm room five years ago. It was the first week of classes, and the small-town freshman was looking to find her niche at a large university. Out of nowhere, the Forestry Club seniors stampeded her hall, yelling and banging on doors.
“My door was open,” Daniel said. “So they all just crammed in saying, ‘You've got to come to practice, you've got to come to practice.’”
Daniel allowed herself to be dragged along to lumberjack practice with the Forestry Club, and knows it was a moment that helped shape her college career.
Daniel is now in her senior and final season competing as a lumberjack. As one of the top lumberjacks at MU, male or female, she is the sole representative for the Missouri team this weekend at the 2010 STIHL Timbersports Collegiate Series Regional Championship at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She is competing against lumberjacks from 11 other schools, all men, with the winner moving on from the Midwest region to face the winners from three other regions, plus one wild-card selection.
Daniel wasn’t always a standout lumberjack. She arrived at MU with no experience other than chopping a little bit of wood at her home in Bethany. In high school, she played traditional sports, including softball, basketball, track and cross-country. Events like the single-buck chop, standing block chop, stock saw and underhand chop were foreign activities. Each involves trying to cut through a log or piece of wood as fast as possible using a different skill or technique, and all four are part of this weekend's competition.
At her first practice five years ago, Daniel struggled to even make contact with the log, much less chop through it quickly. The captains set her up with a log and an axe, gloves to avoid blisters and a pair of metal safety boots. As she wound up for a swing, her gloves slipped, causing her hands to slide and drive the axe straight into her foot. Luckily, she was wearing the boots and was not injured. Her next attempt wasn’t much better.
“The axe slipped totally out of my hands, went between my legs and landed between the two captains,” Daniel said. “They looked at me and were like, ‘OK, you’re done chopping,’ and I was like ‘No, no no, I can do it.’”
Since then, she has worked hard to reach a point where she can compete with anybody in the Midwest region, regardless of gender. Daniel acknowledges the sport is dominated by men, but refuses any notion she is at a disadvantage.
“I came into this knowing most of them (the competitors) were going to be boys,” Daniel said. “I knew what I was getting into. It’s just reality."
What she has gotten into is a competition full of events against the best collegiate male lumberjacks in the Midwest. And while before the competition she said she doesn’t expect to win the overall title and advance to the national championship, she is hoping to win one of the four events. Maybe the underhand chop, which she said is her favorite.
When the regional concludes, Daniel will return to school to graduate in December. She plans on becoming a full-time wildwood firefighter, something she has done each of the past three summers. Last summer, she was promoted to be a “squad boss” in charge of her own fire unit in Montana, where she was sent. This was possible only because of the leadership skills Daniel gained from the lumberjack team.
“I was captain for two years (on the lumberjack team),” she said. “It teaches you leadership skills because not only do you have to know all of the rules and regulations, you have to know what’s going on and who’s doing what. If they’re doing it wrong, you need to be able to show them how to do it correctly.”
She used those same abilities while preparing for forest fires with her crew back in July.
But firefighting comes after this weekend’s competition. Daniel says she is focused on the task in front of her.
“When it’s my time, and my hand’s on the saw or the axe, I get quiet and focused,” Daniel said. “I focus on what my objective is at that particular second.”