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ATHLETE FEATURE - Dan McDonough

A LOG ROLLING LIFE

ONE OF LOG ROLLING’S GREATEST CHAMPIONS,
DAN McDONOUGH REFLECTS ON HIS LIFE AND PASSION




“When I think of heaven, I imagine all of us - when we rolled at our best - rolling each other on a giant lake over and over again. And nobody’s keeping score”


Almost every interview starts with a handshake. But this one was different. The grip was firmer. The forearms and wrists of this subject were stronger than usual. And fittingly, the interview took place at a Lumberjack sight in Northern Michigan, next to a wooden storage building alongside the woods. 54-year old Dan McDonough, whose idea of heaven shoots out of his mouth more matter of fact than poetic, cemented his spot among the best Log Rollers of all time years ago. His resume is jaw dropping; nine professional Log Rolling World Championships, including a record seven straight during his peak in the 1980’s. 15 times, McDonough finished first or second at the Log Rolling World Championships. At one point, he went 11 consecutive years, making it to the finals. And McDonough accomplished all of it during a golden era of competition that included Phil Scott, Fred Scheer, J.R. Salzman, Darren Hudson, and Brian Duffy, all at or near the prime of their careers.

Following the handshake, McDonough was more than happy to talk Log Rolling. But unlike most former athletes in their mid 50’s, he hardly seems content to simply move on from a past life. At 54, McDonough has the physique of a man in his 20’s. While the grey in his beard reflects his age, his muscle toned body and waistline more closely resemble McDonough from three decades ago. His energy is timeless. At one point before the interview, instead of walking around a barrier wall, he instead places a hand on top and leaps over it like an anxious teenager. During McDonough’s annual amateur log rolling tournament in Mackinaw City, MI last month, his enthusiasm was hard to ignore. He effortlessly darted in and out of the giant water tank multiple times, in an effort to keep rollers away from the edges or hold the log for beginners. Simply put, McDonough clearly loves everything about the sport. He loves watching and mentoring the next generation, as well as being on a log himself, sometimes for hours at a time.

McDonough, who operates Jack Pine Lumberjack shows in Mackinaw City, Michigan, retired from competitive Log Rolling eight years ago. But what starts out as a reflective conversation about his past career and current retirement from log rolling, quickly morphs into the present. Earlier this year, McDonough’s training regimen included long rolling sessions and intense daily gym work outs. While some of McDonough’s quickness may be gone, his body weight and muscle tone are not far off from his prime of 30 years ago. When the discussion turns to the possibility of a professional comeback, McDonough does not back off. “When the end of July comes around it’s pretty frustrating, I still love it,” says McDonough. “I still Love to roll. It’s part of my DNA now. I rolled so much for so many years I never thought I wouldn’t be competing. So every time the end of July rolls around I think about it. I think about it every year. I know that I’m still fit and capable of rolling. I could still be competitive, I know that. So it would be fun to see where I’m at still. And just to give the younger kids a chance to see that this isn’t just something new, that it goes back.” McDonough, who’s flirted with the idea of a comeback in the past, almost nonchalantly passes off any possibility of rolling competitively unless he attacks it 100 percent. There clearly won’t be a symbolic comeback just for fun. “When the summers came around (in the past) nothing else mattered other than training,” says McDonough. “It’s a mindset, and I have to find that again if I ever want to roll.”

Most who have trained with or watched McDonough roll in recent years believe his signature raw power is still enough to keep him competitive in a tournament setting. Katie Rick, currently ranked fifth among pro women, is among the many pros who have trained with McDonough over the past year. “His focus and his passion even at his age are so intense,” says Rick. “He has to be set, he has to be steady (even when practicing). I think if Dan decides to compete he will be a force to be reckoned with. Having the mental edge that he does is huge. He’s won nine titles, he’s competed in the finals numerous times. He’s respected by basically everybody.” As for McDonough competing at a high level as opposed to simply participating, Rick echoed the thoughts of many who believe at 54, McDonough could compete in what’s considered to be a watered down men’s division. Heading into 2016, the top two ranked rollers in the world, J.R. Salzman and Darren Hudson, are rolling at an extremely high level. However, by most accounts, there’s a major drop off after those two. “I don’t know if Dan could take out J.R. or Darren,” says Rick. “But I think he would give them a run for their money because he still has the strength.” As for some of the younger rollers ranked just behind Salzman and Hudson, she says, McDonough could have an edge. “I think there would be some shock. I think if they were smart they would find out how many titles he has and think to themselves, hey I can’t take this guy for granted. I think they might be surprised. From personally having rolled him in the last year he’s still got it. I never rolled with him during his prime but even now getting kicked by him on a log is still a challenge to get through.”

McDonough captured his last World Championship in 1997 at the age of 36. He was highly competitive over the next six years, losing twice to Salzman in the finals, and at age 42, beating Salzman in a second round match. McDonough competed in his last sanctioned tournament in 2006, finishing that season ranked outside the top 10, before retiring from competitive log rolling. As for taking a serious look at rolling again in 2016, McDonough notes he would have to be aerobically fit at the highest level. More importantly, he says, he would have to re-develop his signature mental focus, which he points out is just as difficult a task as being physically fit.

“I had a teacher in grade school at one time who told me if you can control your thoughts for five minutes you can rule the earth. Just think about any one object, but you can’t do it. Your mind wanders, it gets distracted. But in Log Rolling you can’t afford that. I always thought about that when I was out there rolling. You have stay focused. You have to be able to go out there and fully concentrate for 5 or 6 minutes. So I’d have to be able to develop that again.”

THE MENTORS MENTOR

“Keep your shoulders down, keep your heel back, and don’t ever give up. And when it comes right down to it, the first two don’t matter.”


It’s a line Dan McDonough rattles off with ease. He once said it to an ESPN reporter who asked what makes a good log roller. It’s also a quote that McDonough jokes, was turned back on him two summers ago. Seven time Log Rolling World Champion Darren Hudson, who’s among McDonough’s closest friends in the sport, called asking for some help to train for the 2014 season. Hudson then dropped McDonough’s own line on him. “Darren called me after he had taken second two years in a row (at World Championships),” says McDonough. “He wanted to come train with me and I told him I haven’t been rolling much. He said I don’t care, I want to come roll with you. And that (quote) is what he came up here for, to just feed off that desire. And he did well. He won that year, never lost a fall.”

Hudson, along with several other former World Champions, plus a host of other pros and Log Rolling teachers, have learned and worked with McDonough. Over the past few decades, he’s essentially become the teacher’s teacher. “Dan was a legend when I was a kid,” says former women’s World Champion Jenny Atkinson, who currently coaches a number of highly ranked pros and amateurs. “There’s nobody I’ve ever met who’s devoted their life to Log Rolling like him. He’s the only roller I’ve been around, win or lose on championship Sunday, was literally back on the log Monday preparing for the next year.”

Atkinson, who had won multiple Boom Running World Championships early in her career, was also considered to be among the top log rollers at that time. However, during her first decade as a pro in the 1990’s, Atkinson routinely fell just short when it came to bringing home a world title as a log roller. That’s when she decided to make the call. “In the 2000’s, I thought to myself, Dan had helped Bonnie (Pendleton), Tina Salzman, so I decided I’m going to call Dan,” says Atkinson. McDonough agreed to coach Atkinson, and shortly after, she had her best run as a professional Log Roller. Between the years of 2005 and 2007, Atkinson won three consecutive Lumberjack World Championships and a Log Rolling world title as well. McDonough was in her corner during most of that stretch and she credits him with much of her success. “He just exuded so much confidence when he spoke to me and I knew he believed in me,” says Atkinson. “He could very keenly watch what I was doing and also capitalize on my opponents weaknesses.”

If you’re willing to go up and meet with him, he’ll roll anyone,” says Rick. “He welcomed me up to Jack Pine and I hadn’t seen him in about five years. You get out there and you roll, and when you get on the log and start training with him, it’s time to roll. You fall in, you get back up, and fall in again, get right back up. Over and over.”

While McDonough has continued to work with top professionals, who routinely travel hundreds of miles to his training site in northern Michigan, he’s also now working with a different kind of student. In recent years, McDonough has built up a youth program in Mackinaw City, Michigan, where he works with rollers as young as 6 years old, who in some cases, are just learning how to stay up for a few seconds. “You see his passion for passing on the sport,” says Rick. He has no connections to the amateurs, yet he started an amateur program. He doesn’t have kids, yet he’s running that amateur program. He just loves it.” Atkinson agrees that McDonough is a huge asset to the sport and is willing to do what some are not. “He has such an incredible knowledge base,” says Atkinson. “ I’m so happy for him that he has his own program. He has so much knowledge, those kids are lucky to have him. It’s great to see him give back. There are plenty of pros that don’t do it. There’s a difference between holding the log and being a coach, and Dan is a master at coaching the sport.”

PASSION

“Talking with Dan about Logrolling is like talking to a live record book”


When Atkinson says those words, she echoes what countless others have said about McDonough’s encyclopedic mind for Log Rolling and its history. When answering a question about his rivalry with McDonough, five time World Champion Brian Duffy said that he wasn’t sure on a specific incident from two decades ago, but joked that if Dan was asked, he would probably remember. McDonough routinely rattles off specific details about matches and falls from 20 plus years ago, including his heated rivalry with Duffy, in which they matched up a remarkable nine times at the Log Rolling World Championship finals.

“Brian and I rolled three times early when I won championships five, six, and seven,” says McDonough. “Then he beat me the next two years, and then I won again, and then he got me the next two. And then I didn’t make it to the finals the following year. The following year after that everyone thought I was old, they thought I was done. And then I came back again, rolled him in the finals when I was 36 and won.” McDonough accurately reels off those facts as if it were a test he had studied for.

Duffy, who won four of those nine finals matches with McDonough, recounts a much earlier incident, in which a then teenaged Duffy took on McDonough for the first time ever in an early round match. “I don’t want to say he was crazy, but he was so focused, so driven,” says Duffy. “I was this young kid and I got the first fall on him and he starts talking on the log, yelling let’s roll, let’s roll. He was talking to himself because he got knocked in but it freaked me out. Afterwards I told someone he’s yelling on the log and he came over and said I wasn’t yelling at you. He said I was yelling at myself. He was just so focused. The difference between Dan (and most of us) is that log rolling is his life.”

McDonough, mostly by the luck of the year he was born, had a career that spanned the sport, perhaps more so than any men’s championship roller ever has. As a young pro, he rolled alongside fellow nine time World Champion Phil Scott. During his prime years, McDonough faced off with Duffy, Scheer, Salzman, and Hudson. The end of his career overlapped with three time Lumberjack World Champion Jaime Fisher. Although he never rolled them in competition, McDonough was also exposed to the Wickheim brothers, Jubiel and Ardiel, who dominated log rolling in the 1950’s and 60’s.

McDonough is clearly in his wheelhouse, telling stories of the men who shaped the sport he loves, including Jubiel Wickheim, winner of ten world titles. McDonough scoffs at the idea that because Wickheim was from a much earlier era, he may not have fared as well against modern rollers. “You have to think of things in context when you try and rank rollers. Jube actually retired for two years (1967-68) and then Phil Scott came and won his first title, and everyone talked to Jube and said you’ve got to roll this guy, this guy is going to be great. So Jube came out of retirement and beat Phil. Phil was in his prime and he went on to win eight more titles, which shows you how good Jube was.” On the subject of Jubiel’s brother Ardiel, who won four titles, McDonough does not miss a beat. “Ardiel was one of the most beautiful rollers. He could just turn on a log so smooth, every time I watched him he was so smooth. Also Fred’s (Scheer) technique was flawless. Pound for pound I always say he was one of the greatest log rollers ever. He was a little on the small side but he could kick as hard as anyone, he could stop you from pulling.” As far as current rollers go, McDonough talks glowingly about the current top two ranked men, Salzman and Hudson, both of whom he faced several times. “J.R., I would say he’s a lot like Jube Wickheim,” says McDonough. “Just a pounder. He has such determination, he’s willing to pound it out. He’s got tremendous strength, great foot speed. He has fight and determination more than anything. Darren’s just a natural, as unstable as he seems at times, he has his mind into what he’s doing. He fully understands the dynamics. He’s just a technician. He’s incredible to watch. He’s so fluid and agile. So quick.”

As the past winds back toward the present, the possibility of McDonough doing the nearly impossible, and competing in a tournament setting at the age of 54, is hard not to think about. Especially after watching his genuine enthusiasm as he ran his annual amateur tournament last month. During the event one spectator yelled at McDonough to come back and roll in Hayward next summer. A few others followed that sentiment. When shouts of a comeback came his direction, McDonough simply acknowledged them, as if to say maybe, but maybe not.

McDonough makes no solid commitments on whether or not he’ll return to roll competitively in 2016. “This past winter I thought about it a lot,” he says. It’s a prideful thing. To have been on top and to know the field is not as deep as it used to be, I think about it.” When pressed on the issue and asked if the odds of a comeback are least fifty-fifty, McDonough lets out a slight smile. “Fifty-fifty, yeah we can go with that,” he says in an agreeable tone. With the closing handshake, McDonough heads toward the giant tank, where a log sits floating. As the middle aged former champion walks in that direction, one thing is clear. Whether Dan McDonough makes a professional comeback or not in 2016, either way, he’ll be rolling.

 

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