The tiny town of Ninilchik had reason to celebrate this week, as one of their own returned from Anchorage with the title of champion.
Nicole Osmar, a 16-year old sophomore at Ninilchik High School, dominated this year's Jr. Iditarod Sled Dog Race despite the hearty competition from 19 of the best up-and-coming athletes in the sport. She claimed a $4,000 University of Alaska scholarship for her first-place finish.
"I've wanted to win this race since I was about 3 or 4 years old, so winning this was accomplishing one of my biggest goals," said Osmar.
Originally started as a training ground for young mushers, the 140-mile out and back course has blossomed into one of Alaska's premiere long-distance races for youth. Spectators have come to expect full-blown competition from the talented mushers, and this year they got just that.
"I was first to every check point and led the race the entire first day," said Osmar. However, on the second day of the race, Osmar took a wrong turn due to a washed out trail marker. "I was passed briefly by Dallas Seavey and Tessa King, between the Big Susitna River and Deshka River Lodge checkpoints."
Once back on the correct trail, Osmar turned up the heat. She drove her dogs hard and caught and passed the two young mushers to regain her lead before arriving at Deshka.
In the final stretch of the race she and her team continued to perform at their peak. Osmar crossed the finish line nine minutes ahead of her closest competitor.
Winning this race wasn't easy, though, and like anyone who hopes to pull to the front of the pack, Osmar knew the way to get there was though lots of hard work.
"I trained harder than ever for this year's race," said Osmar. "I trained with my dad mostly, varying our runs between the Caribou Hills and some swampy flat lands, because there are a lot of flat swamps, rivers and lakes on the (Jr. Iditarod) trail."
Osmar's dad, Tim, is the Jr. Iditarod's only three-time winner and her grandfather, Dean, has won the Iditarod.
"Everything I know I've learned from my mom, dad, grandpa and everyone at races," said the young Osmar. "Mushing to me is a way of life. It's a family tradition and I've been around it forever."
Her words ring true. Practically since birth, Osmar has ridden in the sled basket with her folks while they went on training runs. She frequently napped in the hay with the dogs in the lot.
As soon as she could stand she was on the back of a sled tied to a dog or two. As she got older, more dogs were added, and now in here teens she started to demonstrate the years of knowledge she's accrued.
However, being from a family of famous mushers doesn't mean anyone has cleared the trail for her. In fact, she's felt the weight of being part of the Osmar legacy.
"There's a lot of pressure," she said. "Being from a mushing family, people were always asking when I was going to win. But I've always just done my best, tried my hardest and let the rest fall into place."
This year things definitely did fall into place for her, but Osmar has no qualms about giving credit where credit is due and she said her canine athletes deserve the lion's share of the accolades.
"I had a perfect run with perfect dogs. They never wanted to stop and looked great all the way to the finish line," she said.
She and her dad pool dogs so she had 18 dogs to choose from out of their own lot. She selected her swing, team and wheel dogs from that core group. For leaders she used a dog named Shark from out of her grandfather Dean's lot and a dog named Handle from fellow musher Jon Little and began training and integrating them into her team several weeks ago.
"It still hasn't really hit me yet that I won," said Osmar. However, her lack of euphoria isn't solely from the shock of winning the biggest race of her life up to this point. On the way to the musher's banquet that followed the race, her dad hit a moose in their dog truck, virtually totaling the vehicle.
"The truck spun around, the moose flew off the road and I just broke down," said Osmar. Fortunately, everyone humans and dogs pulled through it without injury, but Osmar said "It was just so scary it kind of shot down the thrill of the win."
The Osmar clan is a busy group, and the young musher will have to let it all sink in while being on the road. She's headed to Anchorage this weekend to help her dad at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod, and then to send him off toward his 1,100 mile journey to Nome.
Then it will be back to Ninilchik to catch up an all the homework that has accumulated. Osmar said keeping up with her academic studies is one of the hardest parts of being a young musher, but she said she was lucky because most of her teachers are pretty understanding.
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