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Singin'in the snow

Sports views

Posted: Monday, March 07, 2005

WILLOW — The tough part is over.

That's how Rachael Scdoris felt at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. All the years of training, all the cajoling and qualifying to get to this point were done. Now it was time to run.

No matter that she faces terrible hazards and that fellow mushers fear for her safety. The legally blind 20-year-old from Bend, Ore., ventured confidently with the last of 79 teams in Sunday's restart of an 1,100-mile journey through darkness — her own and this hostile northern landscape's — to the frigid finish in Nome.

Maybe she won't get that far. She surely won't get there first. If she gets there at all, it will be astonishing. Success is defined differently for each of us. In this case it began with her cries of ''Hike!'' to the handsome team of 16 dogs, led by her favorite, 7-year-old Duchess — ''kind of a hairy human,'' she said — that she trained from pups in pursuit of a lifelong dream.

Scdoris arrived at this moment after years of defying doubts about her abilities. She ran cross-country races in high school when others thought that was impossible. She competed in shorter sled dog races when officials wanted to keep her out.

She endured cruel taunts from classmates growing up, took up rock climbing, horseback riding and racing on a tandem bicycle. She learned to put her faith in herself and refused to give in to her blindness. Her father, Jerry, a sled dog breeder and former musher, encouraged her and watched over her.

She wishes she could be known simply as an athlete, an elite, 5-foot-8 musher competing in one of the world's most demanding sporting events. But she knows all too well that her legal blindness from birth — caused by a rare retinal condition called congenital achromatopsia that reduces her perception of light, color and depth of field — distinguishes her, even if it does not define her.

That uncorrectable visual impairment, which limits her to seeing blurry shapes of objects more than a few feet away and makes her acutely sensitive to bright lights, is the reason why so many people will follow her progress in this race on her Web site, www.gorachaelgo.com. It is the reason why she was invited to appear on TV talks shows — her model looks and confident demeanor didn't hurt — and why her autobiography, ''No End in Sight,'' was recently published.

She has a publicity agent and she hopes her story will be turned into a movie, setting off suspicions among some critics that she's more about hype than serious competition, and that she's putting personal profits ahead of the safety of her dogs. That she was allowed to have a ''visual interpreter'' in the Iditarod — Paul Ellering — and that he comes from the gimmicky world of pro wrestling, added to misgivings about her motives.

Yet it doesn't take long in talking with Scdoris and Ellering, or in reading her book, to realize she takes sled dog racing very seriously. Not satisfied with simply starting, she wants to do exceed everyone's expectations.

Ellering, who finished 54th after 13 days in his only previous Iditarod in 2000, had to talk Scdoris out of being too competitive.

''I said, 'Rachael, we have to define success here. Success for you is finishing this race. That has to be our No. 1 goal,''' Ellering said. ''It was the same for me in 2000. I could have come in here and tried to be competitive. But I was a wrestler running the Iditarod, so that's how I had to define it at that point. If you don't finish, it's like a huge anvil that hangs around your neck for a year.

''If she finishes, it would be historic. Something of this magnitude, with this race, it's just not been done.''

Scdoris followed Ellering in Sunday's restart and will communicate with him the rest of the way by shouted directions and two-way radio. She wants to run some of the tough spots at night so she can follow his headlight and avoid the bright sunshine.

Scdoris has the same worries about the Iditarod as everyone else and believes her vision is only a minor complication. Call her visually impaired or legally blind, she says, ''just as long as you never call me handicapped or disabled.''

''I refuse to sit back and let life quietly slip past me,'' she wrote in her autobiography. ''I want to live and experience everything I possibly can. I know there are dangers out there. I accept them. No, I embrace them. Dangers present us with fear. And fear is my fuel. It makes me go. If I did not meet the dangers of this world head on and come to grips with my fear, I would be cheating myself.''

She refused to cheat herself when she competed last year in the 400-mile Beargrease race along the shore and over the ice of Lake Superior. In sixth place at the next to last checkpoint, with five teams catching up, her father told her she had to make a choice — stay there as planned and be well-rested for the finish, or rest briefly there and the next checkpoint to hold her position. If she went on quickly, she risked not finishing at all if her dogs tired and gave up.

''I thought about it for a while, prayed on it a lot, then decided I'm going to go for it, just to see what I can do'' she said.

''I sang to my dogs for the last 10 miles, every gospel song I learned in church. One of those songs, 'He Never Failed Me Yet' really suited the situation and I kept singing it. I guess the dogs got inspired because they made it through and we finished sixth.''

If singing to her dogs get Scdoris' through the Iditarod, she'll make history.

———

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org



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