UNALAKLEET, Alaska (AP) -- Rick Swenson, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's only five-time champion, is not ready to bow down to defending champion Doug Swingley on way to his third victory.
Swenson, of Two Rivers, Alaska, is known for his intense, sometimes gruff demeanor on the race trail. But he was relaxed and friendly during his stop Sunday in this Eskimo community on the Bering Sea Coast.
''How you ladies doing?'' Swenson asked of a group of Eskimo women gathered with their children in the checkpoint. ''Do you kids want some autographs?''
With Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., holding a seemingly insurmountable lead, Swenson acted like a man with the pressure off. He said his team had done really well to get this far in the race, 851 miles from the race start in Anchorage.
''That's an accomplishment,'' Swenson said.
He conceded, however, that the race dynamics had changed given Swingley's lead. Swenson's goal now is to finish as close to the lead as possible. He left Shaktoolik at 5:58 a.m. Monday, about 50 miles behind Swingley. He was seventh back.
Swenson said he was thrown off his game plan when one of his dogs ran into a tree in the dark near the Rohn checkpoint. His team was spooked by two people walking on the trail. Swenson's team swerved, throwing one of Swenson's dogs into a tree.
Veterinarians stabilized the dog, which nearly died of a serious neck injury. The dog was flown to Anchorage and is expected to fully recover.
Swenson said the accident put him two hours behind schedule.
''I got goofed up when that dog got hurt,'' he said.
To Swenson's dismay, he discovered out of Ruby that he didn't have the right kind of replacement runners for his sled. To make matters worse the ones he had were chewed up from the trail and had a herringbone pattern on them, which slowed him down.
''It was double bad,'' Swenson said.
He also wondered whether his attempt to gain ground on Swingley earlier in the race was good strategy. Maybe he tired his team out. He also said he was forced to drop two of his strongest dogs because of soreness, which slowed the team.
Mushing fans speculated whether Swenson this year could become the only musher to win the Iditarod at least once in the past four decades.
Swenson said don't count him out.
''The decade's just begun,'' he said.
Swenson credited Swingley with having a really good team, training them well and not pushing the dogs beyond what they were capable of.
''He never jeopardized their trust,'' he said.
Swenson, however, did not act overly impressed with Swingley's accomplishment. If Swingly crosses the finish line first in Nome about 250 miles away, it will be his third Iditarod win. He won last year and in 1995.
''He has put a couple of good years together. He is not the new superman of dog mushing,'' Swenson said.
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