ESPN'S Outdoor Games Set to Begin

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Lumberjacks, hunters, fishermen and the big stars - dogs - are descending on Reno for ESPN's Great Outdoor Games.

The competition debuting here after three years at Lake Placid, N.Y., begins Thursday and runs through Sunday with timber events, sporting dogs, bass fishing, fly fishing, archery, rifle and shotgun shooting.

A crowd as large as 100,000 is expected at the three locations hosting the events _ Reno's Rancho San Rafael Park, the Truckee River just west of town for fly fishing, and California's Folsom Lake for bass fishing.

Local gun stores and tackle shops report high interest in the games.

"A lot of them are interested in seeing the lumberjack competitions,"said Dave Piccini at Mark, Fore&Strike Sporting Goods.

The timber events include log rolling, speed climbing and"tree topping"in which competitors ascend a 65-foot pole with a crosscut saw then cut off the top of the log.

A pair of international competitors are among the headliners.

Canadian Wade Stewart is bidding for a logrolling medal after scoring top-three finishes the past two years in speed climbing and tree-topping.

Matthew Gurr, 37, of Deloraine, Tazmania, won a world lumberjack title at age 21 and is making his first trip to the United States to compete.

But the dogs remain the biggest attraction, as evident by a media guide that describes the lumberjack battles as some of the most popular"non-canine events."

Thousands of people turned out in neighboring Sparks last month to watch 137 dogs try to qualify for the"Big Air"competition, in which dogs chasing a thrown object jump off a dock into water.

"The turnout was tremendous, both human and canine,"said Eric Matijevich, director of ESPN's Great Outdoor Games.

Mike Jackson of Shakopee, Wis., is back this year with the defending champion, Little Morgan, a 53-pound, black Labrador retriever that set a world"Big Air"record last year with a jump of 26 feet, 6 inches.

"He was bred to hunt. We do very little training. He's just a smart dog with a lot of heart and a lot of ability,"Jackson said.

Super Sue, a retriever who won a gold medal in 2001 and a silver at last year's games, will be making her farewell appearance for Jerry Day of Noonan, Ga.

The dogs'handlers are among four competitors in the games who have been nominated as candidates for ESPN's ESPY awards for 2003"Best Outdoor Sports Athlete."

The others are two-time defending champion Jerry Miculek of Princeton, La., in the rifle competition, and timber athlete Sheree Taylor of New Zealand, who came back from a serious back injury to win gold for women's timber endurance in 2002.

Local tourism officials are excited about the promotional opportunities.

"I don't think we've had the opportunity to present Reno-Tahoe in such a great light as we will with the ESPN Great Outdoor Games,"said Jeff Beckleman, executive director of the Reno-Sparks Convention&Visitors Authority.

Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt estimated the television exposure _ 19 hours initially and 30 hours more in reruns _ to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars if it were purchased at commercial rates.

Some of the events begin to air July 19 on ABC and ESPN, with additional coverage on ESPN and ESPN2 July 20-22, and repeats on ESPN and ESPN2 July 23-30, and again Aug. 3.

On the Net:

* ESPN Great Outdoor Games:

* Nevada Commission on Tourism:

* Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority: