Swingley set to defend title in 30th running of Iditarod

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Defending champion Doug Swingley is confident and matter of fact without sounding boastful when he talks about his chances for an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

''I think everybody knows it's going to take somebody doing something special to beat me,'' Swingley told reporters at a pre-race meeting in Anchorage.

The 30th running of the Iditarod begins Saturday with 64 mushers set to head down Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage for the ceremonial start. The real race begins Sunday at the re-start in Wasilla, 45 miles north of Anchorage.

Twenty-two rookies are among those who will be making the trip up the trail. The top 30 teams to finish will share in the $550,000 purse, with the winner taking home $62,857 and a new pickup truck.

Swingley, who lives in Lincoln, Mont. is the only non-Alaskan to win the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. He holds the race record, set in 2000, of nine days, 58 minutes.

Another victory would make Swingley a five-time winner. Only Rick Swenson, who dominated the race in the 1980s, has won five times.

Swingley can count on top teams to put up a spirited challenge, said musher Mitch Seavey of Seward.

''There's an awful lot of good dog mushers putting in an awful lot of effort into seeing that he doesn't win again,'' Seavey said. ''Until he loses, everyone thinks he's going to keep winning.''

One of those hoping to end Swingley's run is Jeff King of Denali Park, who scoffs at the notion that this year's race is Swingley's to lose.

''Anybody who says that hasn't seen my dogs,'' said King, a three-time Iditarod champion, who won the Kuskokwim 300, one of Alaska's premier mid-distances races, for an unprecedented sixth time in January. King finished third in last year's Iditarod.

Another three-time Iditarod champion, Martin Buser of Big Lake, notes that several past champions, including four-time winner Susan Butcher, have had a few phenomenal years, but those runs come to an end eventually.

''We know it's not forever. We'll see if he's able to maintain this for another year or two,'' Buser said.

Swingley isn't planning any changes to his race. At least 10 of his 16 dogs will be Iditarod veterans.

''If it isn't broke don't fix it,'' he said. Barring encounters with moose or snowmobiles he expects a smooth run again this year.

Swingley's strategy has been to go as far as possible down the trail before taking his mandatory 24-hour break. It's a strategy that puts him well-ahead of the other top teams and back on the trail with a rested team to build an insurmountable lead in the second half. The strategy puts him at the finish line hours before his closest competitors.

His ability to run away with the race days before it's finished has added an element of predictability to the Iditarod -- something that's generally not good for a sporting event.

''Doug is a tremendous champion and deserves all the accolades that come his way, but change is good for every event,'' said Stan Hooley, executive director of the race. ''From an attention-grabbing aspect, someone new would probably be a good thing for this race. You really want this to be a race to the end.''

Linwood Fiedler of Willow, a perennial top-20 finisher, shook things up last year when he pushed past Swingley at the halfway point before taking his mandatory 24-hour rest. Fiedler was eventually forced to relinquish his lead to Swingley and finished second.

Despite Swingley's dominance, the race still draws mushers who are in it for the adventure and the challenge -- mushers who have no expectation of challenging the champion.

''Irrespective of where you finish, it's an honor to get that hero's welcome in Nome,'' Hooley said.



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