When Christopher “Papa Bear” Rios, 40, first heard the sound of an ax hit the wooden board at a venue in Austin, Texas, he fell in love.

Ax throwing started as a date idea with Rios’ wife, Rachel Rios, about six years ago before it quickly turned into a commitment to the sport and a connection with an inclusive and diverse community. Rios found himself joining his local league and eventually competing in tournaments with hundreds of throwers from around the world.

“I was looking for a way to just vent in general and get away from the grind of work and stress. I was looking for an outlet to do some physical activity and I was also looking just to meet other people, make friends,” Rios said. “And I thought I’ll give this a try.”

Ax throwing as a business and sport has grown over the years with commercial locations and chains opening up in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Backyard Axe Throwing, or BATL, became the first to offer an urban indoor ax throwing experience, according to BATL’s website.

Matt Wilson, CEO and founder of BATL, started BATL in his backyard in 2006, according to Thomas Black, senior manager of the International Axe Throwing Federation, or IATF. After throwing some hatchets at a tree with some friends, Wilson developed the game into a sport and brought his idea to Toronto.

With the community and interest in the sport growing, Wilson opened up two indoor locations in downtown Toronto before expanding in 2015, Black said.

“There’s now hundreds, I would say probably close to 500 between different organizations and members and non-members, just ax throwing facilities globally, that are available for people to go and throw at,” Black said.

Growing the sport

To support the growth of ax throwing, the IATF was founded in 2016 to serve as a governing body for the sport, according to Black. The IATF standardizes the rules of the sport and facilitates interleague competition.

Chris Collins, who is the chief technology officer of BATL, saw the need to move beyond tracking statistics through pen and paper. Competitive throwers from around the world are also able to track their statistics through an app developed by Collins, Black said.

With the app, throwers are able to compare themselves to other competitors on a global scale and track their total number of axes thrown. Over 75 million axes have been thrown in competitions, according to Black.

Another governing body is the World Axe Throwing League, or WATL, which works on a global scale to promote ax throwing as a professional sport by connecting ax throwing clubs and standardizing rules, according to WATL’s mission statement.

WATL commissioner Mike Morton works with the growth and governance of the sport.

Morton, who has been involved with ax throwing since 2017, said seeing the sport change and evolve over the years has been a gratifying experience.

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“It is not a sport that is reliant on strength. It’s not a sport that is reliant on any specific physical or mental aspect of the human being. It is really open and available to anybody,” Morton said. “You come in and you’re an ax thrower. That is the great equalizer.”

Being able to understand the sport, competitors and track progress are factors used to determine if there is a need to change rule sets, Morton said. Certain ax throwing targets, such as a bullseye and a kill shot, used to be larger before WATL noticed that competitors had outgrown the target size.

While WATL reduced the target size, Morton said they had to consider both competitive and non-competitive members.

“We have to balance the fact that our top competitors are about 10% of our entire membership,” Morton said. “We want to balance, keeping the sport competitive with keeping it accessible to what is 95% of our of our throwers who are just out for a fun time.”

WATL hosts tournaments each year in partnership with other venues, according to Morton.

Two of the largest WATL tournaments are the US Open, which took placefrom July 14 to July 17 this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the World Axe Throwing Championships in December. The US Open finals were aired live on ESPN.

The IATF hosted its largest tournament in Toronto this year. The International Axe Throwing Championship, or IATC, took place in June.

David “Middle Class Action Lawsuit” Cycon, 31, started throwing in 2016 and joined the second league to be established in the United States.

Cycon has competed in various tournaments over the years through IATF and WATL, recently winning this year’s IATC which was the IATF’s first major event since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Competing with friends and seeing friends who I haven’t seen in over two years was something that brought back a lot of vigor and joy for the sport,” Cycon said. “It just felt like the heart of the community has been missing and at IATC, I really kind of felt that heart kind of coming back and then winning IATC was just a dream come true.”

All throwers welcome

While each thrower was drawn to ax throwing in their own way, whether it was a means to relieve stress, a date night activity, to find a new fitness routine or to have fun, the competitive nature of the sport and the welcoming community compelled them to stay.

Based in Durham, North Carolina, Moira “MoJo” Girard, 50, is a competitive thrower who won the Urban Axes all-women’s “Ladyblades” tournament and placed in the top 32 for the IATF Championships in Toronto this year.

The welcoming community is Girard’s favorite part of the sport.

“I love that it’s a sport I can compete against with men on equal footing. It’s not a gendered sport,” Girard said. “The first time that ax stuck in the wood I felt like I could just do anything. So I just wanted to do it better and I think it’s empowering.”

Melody “Snaxe” Rohaly, 42, travels about an hour to her ax throwing league in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Throwing an ax felt therapeutic and natural to Rohaly, and the sport became a healthy outlet in her life.

Although ax throwing is not as popular in South Carolina compared to other regions, according to Rohaly, she was still able to find a community.

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Rohaly said she has made friends across the U.S. and in other countries, and found a family. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rohaly met other throwers through the Quarantine Axe Throwing League, where members would meet virtually to throw.

“It’s the camaraderie we all have. There’s such a huge humility, humbleness to some of the great throwers that we have, that are always willing to help somebody who’s struggling,” Rohaly said.

Mandy “Queen Sasshole” Hinson, 42, also noted how the community is like a family.

Hinson, who lives in Clemmons, North Carolina, uses ax throwing as an outlet to exercise and alleviate her frustrations. Before becoming the owner of Camel City Axe Throwing, a mobile ax throwing experience, and competing herself, Hinson worked at Axe Club of America where she threw in her free time.

When initially entering the sport, Hinson noticed the lack of female involvement and representation, which has grown over the years. Hinson wanted to show her daughter that there were strong female competitors.

“It doesn’t have to be a male dominated sport,” Hinson said. “It’s a piece of equipment that weighs the same across the board, and anyone can do it.”

The sentiment of “anyone can do it” is shared across the whole ax throwing community.

Rios advised people to have fun and be in the spirit of good sportsmanship.

“You’ve got nothing to lose, you’re trying,” Rios said. “I would encourage anyone who wants to feel closer to their neighbors or to people from their community that they go try it to have fun, and learn about how wonderful and beautiful and how diverse their communities are.”

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