He shambles around on rickety knees, medicates regularly to quiet his throbbing back, and winces when describing his still-mending ribs. But put an axe, of all things, in David Lewis' hands and he transforms into a world-class athlete.
"Right now, I don't know of anybody out there, anybody in the world, who I couldn't be competitive with, head-to-head," said Lewis, who at the age of 55 is ranked No. 2 on the planet in the admittedly specialized skill of throwing a long-handled, four-pound axe at an inch-and-a-half-wide target 17 feet away. "But I know my body is not going to be able to do this competitively much longer."
That makes this weekend loom even larger for the Maple Grove resident. The World Axe Throwing Championships began Friday and run through Sunday in Fort Worth, Texas, and Lewis, despite taking up the embryonic sport only two years ago, is one of the favorites to walk away with the $3,500 first prize in the popular Big Axe division.
"It's not a big payday, not yet. It's probably like $1 for every hour I've spent practicing," Lewis calculated with a laugh. "It's like any sport, though — there's nothing like a big match against a tough opponent. When you're standing in front of the board, your competitive spirit really comes out."
Darts, billiards, cornhole — bar games are evolving from hobbies to sanctioned sports, and axe-throwing has grown faster than any of them over the past five years. There are at least 10 axe-throwing venues in Minnesota now, and Lewis has plans to open his own eventually.
First, though, there's a championship to win, and he's not the only Minnesotan with a legitimate chance this weekend. Austin Luecke, a 26-year-old engineer from Maple Grove, will compete in both Big Axe and Hatchet throwing, while Dustin Kerr, a 40-year-old project manager from Eagan, will team up with Lewis in the duals competition, where teammates throw hatchets simultaneously.
All three took part in the 2020 world championships in Atlanta as well, with Kerr and Luecke tying for seventh in Big Axe, and Kerr and Lewis finishing 12th in duals. ESPN2 televised the semifinals and finals a week later, as it will again this year at noon on Dec. 19, and "all of us would love to make the TV matches," Lewis said.
Luecke comes into the tournament ranked sixth in hatchet throwing and 20th in big axe, while Lewis and Kerr are ninth in duals. But axe throwing is a sport where the differences are nearly microscopic.
"Among the top 15 in the world, if you stuck any of us in that arena together, on any given day, any of us could win. The difference is incredibly subtle," Lewis said. "The sport looks so physical, but it's really so mental. You know how baseball is a game of inches? In our sport, the difference is literally measured in millimeters. Really, it's all confidence. Confidence and consistency."
Consistency is why Lewis suspects Leucke may be underrated headed into the tournament. Luecke's hobby (and perhaps a future side gig) is woodworking, and after opening the axe-throwing season with the best scores in the country over the first two weeks, he switched to an axe with a handle he had carved himself for the third week. It took a while for the Minnesotan to develop consistency with his new blade, especially since he is still bothered by a back injury suffered while snowboarding in Wyoming last winter, but Lewis expects him to be a threat in both disciplines this weekend.
"I practice with him a lot. Austin may be the best pure athlete in the sport," Lewis said. "I'm excited for him. He can compete with anybody."
Even his practice partner? Leucke isn't sure he wants to find out.
"Hopefully we don't have to face off against each other," he said, "but if we do, it means we made it pretty deep into the tournament."
Which is where he expects to wind up, actually.
"I feel quite confident that I'll represent Minnesota well," Leucke said. "I've worked hard on cleaning up my form, and on making adjustments on the fly if I'm having back pain. I'm getting pretty good at getting back dialed in if something feels off."
With so little separating throwers — each of whom gets 10 throws per game with best-of-three matches — in a sport in which 95% of all throws result in bullseyes, discipline, nerves and practice are decisive.
Plus, a little competitiveness, which can even stretch across the miles, across time zones. As the World Axe Throwing League's fall season came to a close last month, with rankings, seedings and pride at stake at dozens of venues nationally, Lewis, at the time ranked No. 1 in the world, chose to sit out a Twin Cities event in order to allow other local axe throwers to earn points necessary to qualify for regional, national and world championship tournaments.
As he watched, his phone buzzed with a text message from Tyler Flynn, a Cleveland-based thrower who could pass him for the top seed with a strong showing at an event in Ohio that same night. "He wrote to me, 'You want to know tonight, or wait till the rankings are updated tomorrow?' " Lewis said. "I said, 'OK, tonight.' He had reached 759 points [for the season]. I had 758. I was happy for him, still am. I thought, 'We'll settle it in Fort Worth.'"