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As ax-throwing surges in popularity, Urban Open tournament returns to Baltimore

"Axepert" Theo Nowlin walks you through what it's like to toss axes with speed and precision at Urban Axes in Highlandtown. (Oyin Adedoyin / Sun video)

A previously planned vacation prevented Matthew Herzberg from taking part in last summer’s Urban Open. So when he learned the ax-throwing tournament was returning to Baltimore on July 27-28, the Highlandtown resident made sure that his trip to the Outer Banks with his wife and in-laws would not conflict with the competition.

“We did specifically look for Saturday-to-Saturday [accommodations] as opposed to Sunday-to-Sunday,” the 35-year-old volunteer engagement manager for the Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity said with a laugh. “It was a neat thing that a lot of my friends got to be a part of that I unfortunately wasn’t there for.”

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Herzberg will be one of hundreds of participants in the Urban Open, which will take place at Urban Axes Baltimore for the second consecutive year. The two-day event will feature a skills competition Saturday and a double-elimination tournament Sunday in which the winner will take home $10,000.

The Urban Open is one of seven tournaments sanctioned by the National Axe Throwing Federation, and the schedule concludes with the National Axe Throwing Championship in January and February in Toronto.

NATF commissioner Matt Wilson said ax throwing is exploding in popularity. He noted that the federation is currently composed of 52 organizations, compared with only a dozen two years ago.

“So the ramp-up in the last two years has been incredible,” he said. “I’m not sure that even I anticipated it. For me, I try to live in the moment. We always aspire to be what we want to build towards in terms of growing the sport, but I never really put numbers to it.”

Herzberg, who noted the “absurdity” of tossing a cutting tool indoors in an city setting, said the reactions of friends and acquaintances who learn about his pastime have changed.

“I think a year ago, the responses were very different,” he said. “There was a lot more shock. Now that it’s becoming more ubiquitous — not so much in Baltimore, but in other cities — people are like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that.’ Most people still haven’t tried it, but people hearing about it is a thing.”

A group tosses axes while others watch. Group and league sessions last about two and a half hours at Urban Axes.
A group tosses axes while others watch. Group and league sessions last about two and a half hours at Urban Axes. (Ulysses Muoz / Baltimore Sun)

Urban Axes Baltimore co-owner Krista Paton said all 128 spots in the double-elimination tournament were filled within 15 minutes of its posting. And another 100 throwers signed up for the wait list in a 10-minute span.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “Last year being the first year apart from the national championship, we really weren’t sure. We were nervous that maybe we’d have to cut it to 64 people, but we sold out pretty quickly last year. We filled it up near the end, but we knew that we had enough interest to get there. This year’s sign-up was both a blessing and a curse because we had to tell a whole bunch of people that they can’t come to the party.”

One thrower getting ready for the tournament is Theo Nowlin, a 25-year-old audio engineer from Glenelg. Nowlin is a full-time throwing coach at Urban Axes, but acknowledged that his first foray into the sport 18 months ago did not fare well.

“It was exhilarating and also frustrating,” he recalled. “It was a roller coaster of emotions, for sure. It’s not like if I missed an ax, I would be completely upset or anything like that. It was just frustrating because you knew what you had to do, but getting your body to do that is the journey.”

Despite the use of a tool capable of cutting down trees, safety is a significant priority. Throwers compete in fenced-in lanes, and there is a physical barrier separating the competitors from spectators watching from behind.

Throwers using hatchets, which are the standard throwing axes, are required to stand 170 inches away from the target. Those using what are called “Big Axes” are 220 inches away.

The weight of a hatchet blade is 1¼ to 1¾ pounds with a handle between 13 to 17 inches long. The weight of a big ax’s head is 2¼ to 2¾ pounds with a handle of at least 25 inches in length.

Both Nowlin and Herzberg, who is a part-time coach at Urban Axes, said the most common misconception is that power is a must. According to Nowlin, the most successful throwers have mastered technique rather than strength.

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“The harder you throw, the less control you have,” he said. “So it’s all about finesse, not power.”

Paton, the Urban Axes co-owner, said a recent survey of the chain’s customers revealed that ratio of male-to-female patrons was 52-48 with the ages ranging from baby boomers to millennials.

“This isn’t an exclusive thing. This isn’t a white, bearded man thing. It’s not a lumberjack thing,” she emphasized. “You don’t have to be young or fit or anything. Anyone can do this. We have people in wheelchairs throwing axes, we have 75-year-olds winning tournaments with their families. I think our overall median age is 34, but I’d say we have as many 50-year-old birthdays as 25-year-old birthdays.”

Nowlin will compete in the Urban Open for the first time. He has participated in three leagues and won each time, but is keeping his expectations low.

“I don’t think I’m going to do poorly, but there are definitely some incredible ax-throwers in the Urban Open, people who have been throwing for a long time,” he said. “If they don’t hit the bull’s eye, everyone gasps. So I’m not expecting to win anything, but I am not expecting to go nowhere in it. I’m just ready to have fun and see whatever happens. But I think I’ll do OK.”

Similarly, Herzberg has a modest objective.

“I should probably be shooting for something a little higher than this, but my hope is that since it’s a double-elimination tournament, my No. 1 goal is to not go 0-2,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind making a run. I don’t think I’ll be winning just yet, but who knows how things will be feeling in a couple weeks.”

Urban Open

More than 300 throwers are expected to compete in the second annual Urban Open with the ultimate objective of finding America’s top ax thrower. Here are the details.

When: Saturday, July 27 and Sunday, July 28

Where: Urban Axes Baltimore at 1 North Haven Street

What: Saturday will feature a “Skillz Superslam” from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. in which throwers will go head-to-head at a variety of tricks and throwing techniques with a winner crowned for each skill. Sunday will involve a double-elimination tournament that begins at 10 a.m. with a prize pool that includes $10,000 for the champion.

Cost: Free for spectators 21 and over. Valid ID and closed-toe shoes are required, and the bar will be open.

More information: urbanaxes.com/urbanopen

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