A week ago, a 66-year-old woman from Fairbanks did the seemingly impossible to become the first great-grandmother to win the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Race – once the biggest event in sled dog sports.
Was it a harbinger? Could this be the year an old man, or an old woman, wins the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race? The modified, mountain-free course is made for it, and there are contenders in position to move the bar into AARP territory.
Four-time champ Jeff King of Denali is 61. Long time fan favorite DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow is 63, which is pretty much now or never land. Four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake is 59. Two-time champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling, who now holds the distinction of oldest winner, is 56. The winner from 2011, John Baker of Kotzebue, is 54. Linwood Fielder from Willow is 62.
That’s not a bad bunch. Between them they’ve got 11 Iditarod victories and too many top-10 finishes to count. And on a largely sit-sled course from Fairbanks to Nome, who knows?
Tall on the runners
Roxy Wright wasn’t doing any sitting. She was up on the runners, pedaling with one leg on the straight-of-ways, and constantly bouncing around on the sled to weight the runners when sideslipping through corners so as not to crash. A 20- to 25-mph sprint team is not a ride for amateurs.
Some of the shine has worn off the Rondy Championship as sprint racing has faded in North America, but Wright’s win will still go down as one of the biggest moments in Alaska sports history. In topping Buddy and Lin Streeper from Streeper Kennels in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, Wright beat the best of the best left in the sport.
The kennel bills itself as the “Home of World Champions,” and has the victories to back that up. Canada’s CBC earlier this year branded Buddy (given name Blayne) and Lin the creators of “one of the most decorated dog sled teams ever.”
But Team Streeper is bigger than 34-year-old Buddy and his wife. It traces it roots back to family patriarch Terry and brother Eddie. The Alaska Sled Dog Racing Association labeled them “famous Canadian mushers” way back in 1978, and back then the Streepers were just getting started in Alaska.
Over the years that followed, the clan – Fast Eddie, Terry, Amy, Sara and later Buddy – would become the dominant force in sprint racing in the north. Buddy got on the runners for the first time at age 16 for the Open North American World Championships in Fairbanks. He finished third.
The Open North American is either the most important sprint race in Alaska or the second most important, all depending on whether your are resident in Fairbanks or Anchorage, where the Rondy is obviously bigger.
A true champ
Suffice to say, Roxy Wright beating Team Streeper on the streets of Alaska’s largest city was a little like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens coming out of retirement to beat the 2016 New England Patriots in the Superbowl, except that Wright had been gone from her sport even longer than Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis and Ron Woodson have been gone from theirs.
But Wright’s victory did back up something some of the best mushers have been saying for a long time though no one really listens: It’s all about the dogs.
In her heyday, the petite Wright was revered as the hardest working dog in her team. On the way to becoming the first woman to win the Rondy in 1989, the then 38-year-old Wright-Champaine pushed herself to the edge of exhaustion kicking behind her team, running up Cordova Hill to gain those precious few extra seconds crucial to victory, and sprinting down Fourth Avenue beside the sled.
“The exhausted winner, asked how it felt to win the championship as she burst across the downtown Anchorage finish line, said, ‘I don’t know yet,’ and had a tough time even getting that out,” the UPI reported at the time.
Wright probably worked just as hard – it’s in her nature – behind the sled to win this year, but the power output of a 66-year-old woman cannot begin to meet that of a fit, 34-year-old man. It’s simply physiology.
Wright beat the two Streepers and the rest of the field not because she was best on the runners but because she was the best trainer/coach, and because she had first-class dogs to train courtesy of Fairbanks veterinarian Arleigh Reynolds. An accomplished musher in his own right, Reynolds has spent his career studying sled dog nutrition and physiology and breeding his own kennel based on what he has learned.
It doesn’t end there, however, and no one knows that better than Wright, which is why she dropped to the snow on Fourth Avenue after she finished the race to hug a pair of up-and-coming lead dogs (or have they already arrive) named Cloud, age 3, and Pale, age 2.
“I had an awesome opportunity when Arleigh asked me if I could run ’em, help train the dogs,” she said. “They are amazing dogs. I feel very honored and privileged for the honor of getting to train them and run them.”
The Michael Jordans
“If a man is blessed with one great lead dog in his life, he is lucky,” the late George Attla, the best of the best, once observed. The Huslia Hustler, a 10-time Rondy champ, had Blue.
Five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson had Andy. The late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod champ, had Granite. Four-time Iditarod champ Doug Swingley, the first Outsider to win the race, had Elmer. Buser, when he was dominant, had Blondie and D2. Lance Mackey had Larry.
All of those mushers, when those lead dogs were in their prime, were always in the hunt for victory. Andy, who in old age had lost the speed to hold the Iditarod pace, even came out of retirement to lead Swenson buddy Sonny Lindner of Fairbanks to victory in the first running of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
More endurance race than speed race, the Quest was a contest in which Andy could compete despite losing half a step, and compete he did.
Some dogs, like some human athletes, have that special gift to make a whole team better. They are the Michael Jordans and Tom Bradys of their sport. They have some intangible that can’t really be defined.
Brady might be an even better example than Jordan. He made it to the Super Bowl this year with a group of receivers and running backs who, although good, would not be considered great. His team fell behind early, and it just got worse.
There should have been no way for him to rally them back to victory. But he did. And he did it such a way that when the game ended with a tie, and the Patriots won the coin toss to put the ball in Brady’s hands once again, everyone – everyone – knew it was over.
The Patriots were going to win, and they did.
But Brady didn’t do it all on his own. The hand of coach Bill Bellichek was in everything. It is the combination of great coaches and special athletes that win games. It is the right combination of those that form the foundations of dynasties.
Some dynasties last for a long time. Some fade early.
With Andy in lead for a decade, Swenson never finished worse that sixth in the Iditarod. He won four. He lost another in the race’s only photo finish, though he got his sled across the line first. The race was judged won by the nose on Dick Mackey’s lead dog.
Twenty-nine-year-old Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son, is now the Iditarod’s dominant force. He’s won in four of the last five years. He’s had a now 5-year-old dog named Reef in lead for a number of those victories.
Reef should now be in his prime. Seavey should be poised to continue the dynasty. But you never know.
Buddy Streeper thought the same thing when he came to Anchorage a week ago. His uncle Eddie even messaged from his new home in Minnesota that he thought Buddy and Lin were too dominant, so dominant that they were sucking the excitement out of sprint races by making the eventual winner too obvious.
And then along came a woman from the Alaska Interior, a phenomenal sled dog trainer who was at an age when she should have been more comfortable in a rocking chair than on the runners of a dog sled. She was talked into one more run at the game.
She made history. She created one of those unbelievable moments that sometimes happen in sports.
Could it be a harbinger?