Stefan Herda doesn’t exactly cut an intimidating figure – at least not quite the figure you’d expect of the National Axe Throwing Champion. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the champion of such an event as axe throwing would be barrel-chested, flannel-clad, with arms the size of tree trunks, but unlike the other stereotypically “lumberjack” sports, like wood chopping or log throwing, axe throwing isn’t all about brawn. Stefan Herda, instead, is a master of finesse and accuracy, and it’s those unique skills that have won this Scarborough, Ontario boy his four National Axe Throwing Championship (NATC) titles.
If you’re unfamiliar with axe throwing, no problem; the rules of the NATC are relatively straightforward. Throwers engage in a three round match, and the first player to win two out of three roundswins the match. Essentially, a thrower is trying to hit the wooden target ahead of them, which consists of a bulls-eye (worth five points), with a red ring around it (worth three points) and a blue ring around that (worth one point). The Championship brings together a number of member organizations consisting of over 4000 throwers.
Stefan Herda does his axe throwing at BATL (The Backyard Axe Throwing League), an axe throwing community founded in 2006 that has since expanded to become a network of indoor axe throwing facilities. Stefan joined in 2012, after retiring from the equally wild world of championship paintball (that’s right – this guy is like the renaissance man of subculture rec activities!), and made his mark on the BATL community almost instantly.
In 2014, Stefan snatched his first NATC title, and in 2015 he would go on to break the axe throwing record for consecutive bulls-eyes at a towering 50 in a row, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he threw the final five bulls-eyes with his non-dominant hand. From there, it was all winning for the Canadian phenom, who took the next three NATC titles.
But how did he get there, and what separates a great axe thrower from a champion. Well, according to Herda, in an interview he did for Vice, he’s “got an innate ability to be accurate with throwing s**t”, which is simultaneously a great brag and perhaps a humble way of excusing the hard work it took him to get to victory. As mentioned, Herda was already skilled in paintballing when he entered BATL for the first time, and he was also proficient in archery – two sports heavily reliant on accuracy. It comes as no surprise then that those accuracy skills easily transferred into the world of axe throwing.
What makes Herda a champion is not only his ability to be very accurate, but also his ability to get into the right mindset, which he describes as “chilling out and zoning out”. Where other axe throwers might lose a toss to the jitters, or overthink a throw, Herda cultivates a mindset of “this weird Zen-like state” that helps him maintain his accuracy, even next to a roaring NATC crowd. So Zen-like is Herda, in fact, that he looks robotic when he throws, which has earned him the nickname “Skynet” after the AI from Terminator.
It’s this lack of jitters that also made Herda a natural in front of the cameras. In 2017, Herda appeared on the Steve Harvey showto show off his ability, and extoll the benefits of joining an axe throwing league (in the clip, Steve Harvey, in typical Steve Harvey fashion, appears to be baffled that a league would even exist for such a thing.)You can tell from the clip the level of pure skill this four-time champion exhibits, especially when he “threads the needle”, a term for when you throw an axe between two axes that have already been wedged tightly together on the target.
But one senses that Herda isn’t just in it for the trick throws or the fame. From that same Vice interview, Herda betrays the real reason he continues to throw axes: “It’s satisfying. It’s cathartic. It’s visceral. It’s unlike anything else”. That’s a pretty strong endorsement of axe throwing, and one that’s sure to only increase the relatively new sport’s popularity. As the sport grows in popularity, and as Herda’s native BATL continues to expand, the sport is sure to acquire other champions, other record-breakers, but for now, Stefan Herda remains the shining example of how to be a champion.