When one thinks of timbersports, visions of burly bearded gentlemen with biceps popping out of their rolled-up flannel shirts might come to mind.
But one of the top wood choppers in the world is a former gymnast from Spokane.
Erin LaVoie is a 2003 graduate of Ferris High School, where she competed in gymnastics for four years. On Saturday, LaVoie will be competing in the 2023 International Women’s Cup in the fast-growing sport in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
LaVoie, 41, qualified for the event by winning the U.S. women’s championship in 2022, the second time she has accomplished the feat.
“I wish it was a bigger sport,” she said. “It’s becoming bigger, but it’s funny how many places I’ve been in my life just by chopping wood.”
LaVoie is a member of Team USA and a three-time “Iron Jill” World Champion. She also owns two world records in the underhand chop, two medals at the ESPN Great Outdoor Games, and a record in the Guinness Book of World Records for felling the most Christmas trees in 2 minutes.
In 2018, LaVoie won the Stihl Timbersports Women’s Division Championship. It was the first year women competed on the same stage as male athletes.
“When I first got into the sport and I started competing and winning, I always thought about what was next,” she said. “Who is there to beat? Where is the next big competition?”
After graduating from Ferris, LaVoie went to Spokane Community College to study forestry. That’s where she was first introduced to lumber sports.
One day she wandered out of class and down the hall where others were chopping and sawing. She immediately was drawn to it.
“I’ve just always been a competitive person and always want to be doing what everybody else is doing,” she said. “One day I asked them what they were doing, and they put an ax in my hands and set me up in a block and showed me. It was just down the hall and it was coupled up with a class I was taking, and I just fell in love with it.”
For her, the attraction was simple.
“The thing about wood chopping is that it provides instant results,” she said.
“The first time I had an ax in my hands and tried chopping through a block of wood, it probably took like five hours. But I kept at it. It was challenging and I enjoyed that.”
LaVoie entered a competition just a few days after starting the sport and placed. That helped fuel her fire.
“I don’t know if it came naturally or not,” she said. “I just know what I wanted to be, and I worked really damn hard at it.”
She would spend all her free time training in her new sport while others around her treated it like a hobby.
“It was back-breaking because it was hours and hours of work, but I wanted to win,” she said. “When I want something, I work really hard until I get it.”
She didn’t finish at SCC because she moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, prior to completion to be closer to Stihl’s headquarters to train and compete.
LaVoie tried a couple of times to restart college but eventually moved back to Spokane and opened a gym, Predation Crossfit, on East Springfield Avenue, to support her training financially and physically.
“I just always wanted to own my own business,” she said. “When I lived in Virginia Beach, it was just really hard to train for my sport. It seemed like I wasted so much time and money doing other types of training and other gyms.”
She was training herself and others out of her home and realized it was something she could do to support herself.
“I just thought maybe this is something that I need to own, a business I need to run,” she said.
LaVoie wouldn’t call herself a “pioneer” in the sport, but she did acknowledge she got into it at the right time.
“There weren’t a lot of women (competing) back then,” she said. “So, it was easier to be successful because it wasn’t very competitive for women. And I think anything you do in life, if it’s fun you want to keep doing it. And winning was fun.”
LaVoie started traveling for competitions and competing at a higher level.
“I was meeting people all over the world,” she said. “I was traveling all over the world. In fact, it’s probably the thing that keeps me in it now, is having more and more opportunities to do what I love and meet people who are like me.”
There’s a lot of effort that goes into practicing and competing, including the laborious effort of going out into the woods and cutting down trees, cutting them into manageable pieces, loading and unloading trailers and finally setting up blocks on which to practice. And then, finally, chopping wood.
LaVoie is at the point in her career where she doesn’t have to enter every competition available anymore just to survive. She appreciates being able to choose when and where she competes.
“I like competing on the big stages – on an actual stage,” she said. “It’s beautiful wood. Some of the smaller competitions are fun, but they are in the dirt with a stand that’s rocking and not great wood, and I’ve found it’s not really great training for the championship events.”
After training and competing for so long, LaVoie said she’s had fleeting thoughts about slowing down or retiring.
“But every time I get back on top of the block of wood and start chopping, it’s like, ‘What the hell am I thinking?’ I just love it too much. There’s nothing better in the world.”