March 08, 2008

Rick Swenson in the Hunt for Win Number Six

Left: Rick Swenson tends his dogs in McGrath

For most mushers winning the Iditarod is a once in a lifetime dream. It takes determination, the right combination of dogs, a tremendous lead dog, and a certain degree of luck as the sleep deprived mushers make their way to Nome. There have been a few mushers that have at times created a mushing dynasty of sorts and were able to put together multiple wins over the course of several years. In the late eighties Susan Butcher was a force in the race with 4 wins. During the nineties Doug Swingley, Martin Buser and Jeff King battled each other to amass 4 wins each. But the best all time musher is Rick Swenson with five wins.

His last win in 1991 is the stuff of Alaska legend as he drove his dogs into a storm on Norton Sound coast while the rest of the mushers returned to the checkpoint;
From the New York times March 16,1991:

On a day when the wind and the snow blowing off the Bering Sea Coast were so severe that he thought he might be risking his life, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers covered the final 77 miles to this historic gold-rush town and won the 19th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race early this morning.
By mushing his team through temperatures of 20 degrees below zero and winds of 40 miles per hour when most of the chief competitors turned back to shelter, Swenson became the first five-time winner of the 1,163-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. Swenson, who last won the event in 1982, finished in 12 days 16 hours 34
minutes 39 seconds to win $50,000 and a new truck. In 16 Iditarod competitions, he has never finished out of the top 10.

Boldness Is Rewarded
The victory rewarded Swenson's boldness in mushing his dog team into a bitter winter storm from White Mountain, the next-to-last checkpoint, and deflecting the challenge of his chief rival, Susan Butcher of Eureka, who was seeking to become the top-winning Iditarod competitor. Butcher, winner of four of the last five Iditarods, and the event record-holder with a time of 11 days 1 hour 53 minutes was one of three front-runners who headed into the bad weather, but then turned back early Thursday morning. Before the storm, she was viewed as the likely winner.
Butcher, Joe Runyan, the 1989 champion from Nenana, and Tim Osmar, a
perennial contender from Clam Gulch, gambled that the harshness of the weather
would exhaust the dog teams of Swenson and Martin Buser of Big Lake. Swenson and Buser were the only competitors to plow through the whiteout conditions that often obliterated the trail.

No Turning Back
"If I was going to walk, I wasn't going to turn back," said Swenson. "As long as I stayed on the trail, I wasn't going to die."...

"You couldn't tell if you were going up, down or sideways," said Swenson of the worst stretches of trail. "You couldn't tell anything. I never worked so hard for anything in my life. It was a little scary and it was stressful. It was not a pleasant night." Swenson, 40 years old, said he did not even know that the others had gone
back, but he was determined to push on. "There was no prize in White Mountain,"
he said. Swenson expressed surprise that Butcher didn't fight the storm.
"She's gonna have to get six now if she wants to be top dog," he said.

On Tuesday Swenson claimed that he was in the hunt for another win this year as he took his 24 hour layover in McGrath while the rest of the pack continued up the trail. But the master of the trail may have been right and by yesterday he was back in the lead pack as they headed down the Yukon River.

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