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Look Sharp

Paine Webber exec perfects the tomahawk toss

By Will Harper

A WARM BREEZE GENTLY rustles the leaves of the trees surrounding this almost peaceful parking lot at the corner of First and Hedding streets, but it isn't strong enough to disturb the flight path of projectiles thrown 90 mph.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, it's an absolutely gorgeous afternoon for knife throwing.

A dozen cutlery-tossing enthusiasts from around the country are gathered here brandishing sharp objects to compete in the fourth annual Pacific Knife Throwers Western States Knife Throwing Championships.

As I make my way toward the target area, I spot the name-tag of Rick Lemberg, the founder of the 110-member Pacific Knife Throwers club who helped organize the event.

He doesn't look like the senior vice president of corporate services at Paine Webber. Today the 38-year-old father of three is wearing a pair of Nike running shoes, knee-long cotton shorts and a T-shirt.

In a former life, Lemberg used to be a juggler and a magician, which is how he became acquainted with knife throwing. He started competing in 1996 and is now a nationally ranked thrower.

According to Lemberg, the sport got its start after World War II, when a military veteran named Harry McEvoy formed the American Knife Throwers Alliance. Interest in the sport faded in the '70s, but started making a comeback earlier this decade, Lemberg says. He even hopes to attract coverage from ESPN at a contest next year.

"This should be a legitimate television sport," Lemberg insists.

If the contestants here this weekend are any indication, the sport attracts people from all walks of life.

Lemberg, the corporate exec, is good buds with Lee Fugatt, the world knife-throwing champion from Redding who once taught survival skills in the military and has tattoos all over his burly arms. Fugatt and Lemberg have competed many times against Pat Minter, the bearded guy from Alabama who chews tobacco nonstop during the competition, carries around a portable spit receptacle and has a faded circular mark in his back pocket where his Skoal goes. Then there is 70-year-old newcomer Chuck Fogarty from Chicago, who would bear more than a passing resemblance to Burt Reynolds if the actor were a little more gray and favored Dr. Scholls footwear.

Though they come from different backgrounds, most seem to relish the meditative aspect of the sport.

"It's so relaxing," says Fugatt. "There are a lot of Zen things that will calm you down. Knife throwing is one of them. When you're throwing knives you don't think of anything else."

Good thing, too. The object of this kind of knife throwing is similar to other aiming sports like archery. There are four three-ring targets, placed at varying heights from 32 inches to 72 inches (the targets in today's competition are, by the way, painted on sections from the stump of a digger pine tree in Lee Fugatt's backyard). The bullseye is worth three points, and the remaining outer rings are worth two points and one point respectively.

Today, there are three main events: The 12-foot throw, the 18-foot throw and the tomahawk toss. There also is a speed-throwing contest and a distance throw, but those are treated as ancillary events.

Each contestant gets 40 throws for each of the three main competitions. The tomahawk toss alone lasts more than two hours. Between rounds, Lemberg gets on the portable PA system and tries to get the crowd of 20-some spectators--a couple of whom are reading newspapers--interested in the action. "Boy, is this gonna be close," he says near the end of the tomahawk toss. "We're gonna have five people within a few points of each other in the final round."

As I watch, I doubt that this can be a legitimate spectator sport (though it does look fun). Maybe a clip could make it on America's Funniest Videos. I ask Rick if he has ever seen anyone accidentally maimed or who at least had an eye gouged out by an errant airborne knife. No, he assures me, he's never seen any injuries or accidents.

Then, just like in a sitcom, his kid pipes up to say, Dad, remember that time you threw the knife really hard and it bounced back and hit your foot?

Long pause. But it didn't cause an injury, Lemberg replies.

Later, I start to believe maybe the sport is more dangerous than Lemberg lets on when during the speed-throwing contest a guy's knife ricochets off the target and flies back over his head.

In the end, no one was hurt or maimed. National champion David Smith, 42, from Alabama did set a new national record with a cumulative score of 220. "Really, I had a bad day," Smith says while admiring his trophy. "I usually throw better than this."

His $150 cash prize won't even pay for his round-trip plane ticket from Alabama. Of course knife throwing isn't about the money for Smith. "It's for the glory," he says with a grin.

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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