Wounded Warrior Makes Logrolling Championship Comeback

By Joel Waldinger | November 10, 2017


Travel to Hayward, Wisconsin in Sawyer County and two things standout. The giant muskie at the local fishing hall of fame and the locals are fanatics about their timber sports. Life in this neck of the Northwoods revolves around logrolling. As a kid it was just what you did in Hayward. J.R. Salzman started at the age of six. Salzman said, “There would be 100 kids, running around, logrolling, catching frogs and getting into trouble.” In that moment no one could foresee the journey that was about to unfold.

In 1998, Salzman unlocked the key to success. He had been competing for four years without ever winning and thoughts of quitting entered into the equation. He was about to roll in the Lumberjack World Championships in his hometown of Hayward. He went into that contest and knocked off a nine-time world champion, and then the four-time world champion and then a three-time world champion. Salzman said, “I went in with the attitude that I just didn’t care and I had no pressure, no expectations, and I went in and I beat’em all.” Salzman had won his first world championship. He would go on to dominate winning five more world titles. The awards and accomplishments kept rolling in.

Riding a wave of success J.R.’s life was about to take an unexpected turn. “It blew me away that somebody could do this. It clearly affected me emotionally. I threw around the idea for two years and then I finally said, ‘Enough’s enough.’” According to Salzman, “It’s time for me to do my part”. He had seen the devastation of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and he saw joining the military as doing his part.

Salzman joined the Minnesota National Guard and was deployed to Iraq. December 19, 2006 will be forever etched in his memory. He recalls it being a cold and foggy morning around Baghdad. Salzman was assigned to lead a fuel convoy to Balad Air Base, also known as Camp Anaconda. Salzman’s Humvee was first on the road, first in the line of danger.

Salzman described his job like this, “I have my driver, I have my gunner and I’m just there issuing commands. I’m doing all the communication with the convoy.” Salzman says he remembers one second telling his driver to slow down and the next second he was waking up. Salzman recalls what happened next, “As I came to after being knocked out. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t open the door and why my arm hurt so bad. So, I looked down and where my hand had been moments earlier was now a mangled hunk of flesh and bone, my arm was on fire.”

His Humvee had been hit by a directional shaped charge. Salzman says he never panicked, never went into shock. He stayed calm. He remembers this, “I told my gunner I said, ‘Hey, get on the radio, get a hold of gun truck three and see if you can get doc up here. My right arm’s been blown off and if I don’t get a tourniquet on, I’m going to bleed out.’ Just like I was in charge still.” When he retells this story he’s often asked how he stayed so calm and he explains it this way, “I said, ‘Well have you ever logrolled in front of 3,000 people before? I have. If you can handle that pressure, you can handle getting your arm blown off.’” When the medic did arrive Salzman swung his legs out, held up his arm and said, “Gimme a tourniquet.” Then he stood up and walked over to the stretcher and laid down.

For the pain doctors hoped to give him morphine. But yet again there was a catch. “I started saying, ‘No morphine, no morphine.’ And the doctors were saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you morphine.’ I’m like ‘No! No morphine! I’m allergic!’ And the whole room stopped and looked at me. They said, ‘You’re allergic?’ I said, ‘I’m allergic to morphine. Do not give me morphine. You could kill me.’” The doctors did eventually figure out a way to stabilize his pain and as it started to work Salzman had this flashback, “Apparently I started going on this rant about I’m a world champion logroller. You can see me on ESPN. I’m half doped up. I’m missing an arm. I’m naked, laying there on this table, and I’m telling them all about how I’m a world champion logroller.”

Salzman recalls being pretty out of it for the first year and a half after his injury. He was constantly doped up on medication, and was dealing with effects of a brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite those injuries Salzman couldn’t stop thinking about logrolling. He can still remember getting back on the log for the first time. Salzman says he threw on his shoes, stepped back on the log and it was like riding a bike… with one arm. He was a little off. His hollow, carbon fiber, super sleek, super light arm, was great unless you’re a logroller. His balance was off, because his natural arm is heavier than his new one. So Salzman designed a weighted prosthetic arm to help with balance and then taught himself how to roll again.

His first year back in competition was 2008. Salzman trained harder than he had ever trained before. He put in more time than he ever did before, and he felt way more pressure to win than ever before. Salzman said, “Everybody wanted me to win because they wanted that hometown hero story.”  In his attempt to regain glory, Salzman admits that he choked. He lost to somebody he hadn’t lost to since he was 14-years-old. He remembers it was embarrassing and he wanted to quit.  Salzman thought, “To hell with this sport, I’m done.”

Salzman was 27 years old when he lost his arm. Before going to Iraq he was skilled with his hands and made a living building houses. He went from being right-handed to being left-handed and had only three working fingers. Nerve damage in his hand also made life more difficult. Salzman had to re-learn the simplest tasks like tying his shoes, getting dressed and how to brush his teeth. During his time in Iraq he had a sketch book where he pictured the wood creations of his dreams. In between patrols, he would design and sketch furniture he wanted to build when he got home. Woodworking has been a passion since he was a teenager.

A few years later he opened Salzman Custom Sawing outside of Menominee, Wisconsin. Salzman works with rough, urban logs. The reality is he does everything from start to finish. He saws them, dries them, and works with them right down to the finished piece of furniture and is completely self-taught. Salzman says it’s rewarding working with timber because you sort of brand a bit of your personality into the wood when you work with it.

Rewarding like logrolling, before he went to Iraq, before he lost an arm, before re-learning life’s simplest tasks. Despite all his successes, for Salzman something was still missing. He can remember lying in bed on a cold January night unable to get the thought of competing out of his mind. He admits just the thought of competition will get his heart beating faster. Salzman had a change of heart and wanted to give logrolling another go.

In 2009, he returned to where it all began: the Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward, Wisconsin. With a new-found confidence he cut through the competition like a lumberjack on a mission and earned his 7th world championship and his first with just one arm. Salzman said, “It was this amazing feeling of… you know getting my life back in order.” Salzman wasn’t satisfied and wasn’t finished. He won three more world titles, and is now tied for the most ever, a living legend in logrolling.

On a warm July day, seven years after he started his comeback, Salzman won his 10th and last title. On the victory stand, knowing he planned to retire, Salzman thanked the crowd, “It’s just amazing to be able to come back and roll after everything I’ve been through – losing an arm in Iraq.” Then he paused, looked down and put his hand to his head. Everything he had seen, everything he had endured, everything he had achieved came streaming back. Unable to continue speaking, he fought back tears, but words would not be necessary. The crowd stood to applaud and honor this war hero. They held him up with their cheers. He admits he had a hard time keeping it together in that moment, “I’m the only person ever missing a limb to ever win. Not once, not twice, but four times.”

“In hindsight, I never thought it would turn into what it did. You know to be one of the best logrollers to ever walk the face of the earth and especially for what it’s done for my life, to be that sort of core support and to help me get my life back together. Bad things happen. Things don’t go your way. Life’s not fair. Believe me, life is not fair. Everything costs something. What are you willing to pay? This is what I paid”, as he gestured with his prosthetic arm. Fully knowing the journey that he’s been on, Salzman says he would do it all again. He was quick to add, “I’m not done yet. I’m just a small-town guy from Hayward, Wisconsin. Who wants to saw logs and play with wood and roll on logs in the summer.”


It’s Just The Way The Salzmans Roll

Tina Salzman is a ten-time world champion logroller and sister to logroller J.R. Salzman.


Iranian Connection

While In Iraq, It Was An Iranian Who Caused J.R. Salzman Bodily Harm


Enlisting In The Military With A Logrolling Secret

After winning six world logrolling championships, J.R. Salzman enlisted in the Army following the emotions he felts after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. However, there was one secret he kept from his commanders.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 
2018-01-19T17:53:28-06:00Tags: , , |

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