Martha King always had talent when she competed on the field hockey pitch. She was a strong player in the youth leagues and a varsity member at Wilmington Christian High School. But there was one problem: King and her two siblings were raised to respect others. In other words, she was too nice. “My dad said I had to work on my killer instinct,” she recalls.
There are worse things to say about a person—especially one who’s become as accomplished as King has. Put an axe in the hands of this Chadds Ford native, and you’ll see some real aggression. “That instinct came out in wood sports,” she says.
For the past six years, King has emerged as one of the top “lumberjills” in the world. Earlier this year, at the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wisc., she captured two individual titles and the all-around crown, the most recent and impressive entries in an increasingly robust competitive portfolio. The 30-year-old holds the world record in two underhand chopping events and has competed in Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand.
King stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 130 pounds—hardly the prototypical body type for someone who can wield an axe well. The secret is her precise technique, which serves to outmaneuver more powerful competitors. “She really uses it to the greatest advantage,” says Peg Engasser, who’s been competing since 1988, when women’s participation in wood-chopping events was in its infancy. “No matter how big, muscular or strong you are, you can only get so far as a chopper. The ones who are most consistent have the best technique. Martha proves that. She uses every bit of herself to win. She uses her frame and her brain.”
A sales manager for Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, King grew up raising chickens, riding horses, hiking, canoeing and hunting. Her father, Rob, participated in wood sports when he was at Penn State University, one of the few schools in the country that sponsors such a pursuit. Martha followed him to PSU. “He’s my hero,” she says of her dad. “He’s an outdoorsman, and my family was always active outdoors.”
Penn State’s Mont Alto campus sits between Gettysburg and Chambersburg near Michaux State Forest. “It was a sweet spot in the middle of the woods,” she says. “There were orchards everywhere and not a lot to do.”
She studied animal sciences, minoring in wildlife and fisheries science and forestry science. She wasn’t even in school a week when she started competing in wood sports. It was the first time she picked up an axe. “I was able to take something from everyday life [chopping wood] and turn it into a fun competition,” King says.
There weren’t too many women doing it when she began in 2007, and King was determined to show that she could handle herself in the sport. With her strong core and lean frame, she was quite successful, though she didn’t continue when she moved to PSU’s main campus her junior and senior years.
Upon graduation in 2011, King didn’t expect to compete in wood sports again. That changed when she went to Germany in 2012 to work on a hog farm and reconnect with a family she’d stayed with during a high school summer abroad. There, she worked hard, rode motorcycles, dated the farmer’s son and picked up an axe again. “I entered a couple competitions, and I figured I should try to do it some more,” King says.
When King returned from Germany, she connected with Mike Eash, a competitor and trainer based in Coatesville. “He broke me down and built me up,” says King. A technician at the sport, Eash helped King develop her skills. Aussie world champion Lawrence O’Toole also provided instruction. Australians “grow up chopping wood,” says King. “I was looking through [O’Toole’s] baby pictures, and there was one of him at two with a dull axe in his hand.”
King’s first big finish came in 2013 at an event sponsored by the STIHL power tools company in Germany, where she took second place. Over the next several years, King placed in events all over the world, developing a reputation as a fierce, fair competitor whose skill overcame others’ brawn. “Martha is always looking for something to fix, even if she has won a championship,” says Alex Miller, a friend of King’s who’s trained with and competed against her. “She’s a very hard worker and very determined. She’s not the biggest girl, but she is a prime example that the sport comes down to mental capacity, strength and precision.”
King finished in the top three in the STIHL U.S. championships in 2017, ’18 and ’19. Her big breakthrough came this past spring, when she won the underhand chopping championship, the single buck (a long saw with razor-sharp teeth) title and the all-round crown at the Lumberjack World Championships in Wisconsin. She’s the world record holder in two underhand events—the 12-inch white-pine log (38 seconds) and the 10-inch Aspen log (20 seconds).
In early October, King tore through an eight-inch white-pine log at Maine’s Fryeburg Fair in 15.48 seconds—more than a second quicker than the previous fastest time. “I’d like to keep going as long as I am competitive,” she says. “When I’m on fire and cutting well, I feel untouchable. It’s an insane rush—and I have to keep pursuing that.”