James Blair had been going through a rough breakup. Mike Day was unable to work and had started feeling as though he had no purpose.
Throwing axes and knives turned out to be the outlet that might have saved them both.
Both Blair and Day found their calling when they started showing up at Johnson County Axe Throwing, established in Whiteland three years ago by Chris Engel and his family.
“I take in all the strays,” Engel joked.
Engel, Blair and Day all became fast friends, and this weekend they’ll all be up in Appleton, Wisconsin for the 2022 World Axe Throwing Championships (Dec. 1-4). Day received an invitation to compete in the knife-throwing division, while Blair and Engel will be competing together in the duals competition.
Engel is making his second trip to worlds; he also competed at the 2019 tournament in Atlanta. Once Day and Blair started coming around about a year and a half ago, he gradually got them both hooked. All three competed at the U.S. Open this past summer in Minneapolis.
Blair and Engel hadn’t competed as a pair before, and they lost both of their matches in Minnesota — “we had the rookie jitters,” Engel said. Day was also eliminated, but he came close to knocking off the world’s top-ranked player, Lucas Johnson. He lost by one point.
Despite the results, the experience stoked the competitive fire in all of them. Day and his wife Merritt have started traveling to competitions far more extensively this year; Blair goes “as often as my finances allow.”
“Seeing that caliber of throwers in one facility, it made me want to practice harder,” Blair said of the trip to Minnesota.
The group was first brought together somewhat by chance.
Engel started Johnson County Axe Throwing in 2019 in large part because he got tired of paying for parking when he went to throw in downtown Indianapolis.
“I knew I could do it better and cheaper,” Engel said. So he did, setting up shop on US-31 in Whiteland.
The business was a hit right away; on weekend nights, there was often a 30- to 45-minute wait to throw. The pandemic slowed that traffic flow for a while, but it’s gradually built back up. Johnson County Axe Throwing has since acquired a beer and wine license and has doubled its space; one side of the property is open to all ages, while the other has a bar and is age-restricted.
Last year, Blair and Day wound up becoming two of the more regular customers — in need of an escape from different troubles.
“I was going through a real bad breakup, and I was looking for an avenue to keep myself from alcohol,” Blair said. “I delivered wood to (Engel) a couple of times … and he’s like, ‘Why don’t you just get in here and throw?’”
Day has been suffering from Meniere’s disease (a buildup of fluid in the inner ear) for the past five years, on top of the post-traumatic stress disorder that he’s battled since serving in Iraq with the Indiana National Guard. Unable to work and struggling to find anything worth leaving the house for, he eventually found his way to Johnson County Axe Throwing and linked up with Engel and Blair.
“These two adopted him,” Merritt Day said. “(Mike) was not in a good place.”
They’re all in a much better place now, thanks to one another.
The local league has become a giant family. Whether it’s “Sunday Funday” pool parties at the Engel house or dinners after league nights, they’ve all formed a tight bond with one another.
“We talk (trash) to each other,” Blair said, “and at the end of the day we all go out and talk more (trash) to each other as a family.”
This particular branch of the “family” has started taking the competition a bit more seriously.
Day competes somewhat regularly in the World Axe Throwing League — enough so to rank among the top 100 in the world, but not enough to have accumulated enough circuit points to qualify for worlds. So he, along with Blair and Engel, took the alternate qualifying route. They submitted videos — overseen by WATL judges and shot by a pro videographer — to audition for the remaining open spots, and they all made their way in.
No matter how the competition goes this weekend, it’s clear that they’ve already hit their real target.
IF YOU GO
Curious about axe throwing? Johnson County Axe Throwing will be hosting a Nightmare Before Christmas tournament and charity event this month:
Where: Johnson County Axe Throwing, 6001 U.S. 31 North, Whiteland
When: Dec. 11; registration begins at 9 a.m.
What else: Food, mimosas and bloody marys available; all participants will receive a swag bag. There will also be an ugliest Christmas sweater contest.
For more information, call 317-809-7401 or visit the johnsoncountyaxethrowing.com