Iditarod champion musher Swingley says he's retiring from this race

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

RAINY PASS (AP) -- Lagging far behind the top competitors, Montana champion dog musher Doug Swingley said Tuesday he's retiring from the competition in this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

''This is my victory lap,'' the four-time Iditarod winner said shortly after arriving at the Rainy Pass checkpoint Tuesday morning. ''I'm retiring from competitive racing. You won't see me up front anymore.

''I've done what I set out to do.''

Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., said he'll continue the race, but he won't be striving for the winner's circle in this year.

Swingley, who won the last three Iditarods, was far back in a field of 62 mushers only three days into the 1,100-mile race to Nome. He had baffled race watchers on Monday by arriving at Finger Lake just after noon and settling in as other mushers passed him by.

Swingley's strategy had been to go as far as possible in the race before taking his mandatory 24-hour break. In past races, that strategy has put 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.

Some suspected the 48-year-old Swingley was playing a wily strategy against the other mushers. He hinted as much, saying that he was ''sandbagging,'' a slang term to mean deceiving his opponents by deliberately playing poorly.

But arriving in Rainy Pass Tuesday after a 17-hour rest in Finger Lake, Swingley said he was setting competition aside -- for now, at least.

''I'm seeing people I haven't seen in a long time and having a great time just running my puppies,'' he said. ''I'm just taking a sabbatical.''

''Maybe next year I'll run the (Yukon) Quest or something like that,'' he said referring to the thousand-mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Swingley's words were a complete turnaround from the stance he took less than a week ago. Just before the Iditarod started, Swingley was confident about his bid for an unprecedented fourth straight victory in the Iditarod.

''I think everybody knows it's going to take somebody doing something special to beat me,'' he said Friday.

At the time, Swingley said he wasn't planning any changes to his race. ''If it isn't broke don't fix it,'' he said.

On Tuesday, Swingley said he actually decided in December to run an easy race this time around. He didn't let on, he said, because he ''didn't want the other mushers to slack off.''

Willow musher Linwood Fiedler, runner-up last year and among the Iditarod leaders Tuesday, said he believed Swingley.

''If that's what he says, it's probably what's happening. I hadn't really thought about it much,'' Fiedler said as he cooked his dogs' midday meal and tended to his gear. ''It would be fun to have a year not to race and to enjoy the trail. I would take him at his word.''

Three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King said he was disappointed with Swingley's decision, but he understands why Swingley is bowing out.

''I have mixed emotions. In one way it's a letdown from a competitive point of view. On the other hand, I'm envious. It's almost criminal to be in this big a rush.''

King said those racing in the Iditarod can become oblivious to the joys of the journey.

''We don't look at people. We don't see them. We do hear them. I would like to, but you can't do both,'' King said. ''On the other hand I'm hoping to make a paycheck.''

It's possible Swingley's decision may mean a hollow victory for whoever wins this year, King said.

''They'll have to live with that. I know that when I won the race in 1993 I wanted (four-time champion) Susan Butcher in that race,'' King said.

King says he does not believe Swingley's move is a ploy to get top teams to let down their guard and their speed before he makes a mad dash.

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