Seavey soaks in role of victor

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

Just about everyone who has ever stepped foot on the back of a dog sled has at one time or another wondered what it would be like to win the Iditarod. Mitch Seavey now knows what it's like, and it's everything he thought it would be and more.

"I wake up every morning and still can't believe it," said Seavey from Nome on Friday.

A walk to check on his dogs, which are just a few minutes away from where he's been staying in Nome, has been taking him all day because so many people want to stop and congratulate him.

By now just about everyone knows how the Kenai Peninsula underdog drove his team for nine days, 12 hours and 20 minutes to win this year's Iditarod two hours and 20 minutes ahead of his closest competitor. But what many don't know is just how huge a role Seavey's belief in himself played in his victory.

Long before the 44-year-old musher showed up in the starting chute in Anchorage, he already was telling reporters he was going to win this year, yet he was not considered a likely first-place candidate by many reporters and others who follow the race. But Seavey like the simple message that adorns his truck proved them wrong by "Quietly Making Noise."

"The fans have a new winner," said Seavey, who lives in both Seward and Sterling. "A guy who's been running the race for several years and finally won. It shows that you don't have to be a big name to ultimately perform and win this."

He also is one of only two peninsula mushers to ever win the Last Great Race. The first being Dean Osmar of Clam Gulch in 1984.

Seavey's victory also stands as a contrast to what has typically been a small pool of overall winners.

Although this was the 32nd Iditarod, there have been only 17 mushers who have won the race, and with the exception of Seavey this year and Robert Sorlie last year, the last 12 years have been dominated by the same three mushers Martin Buser, Jeff King and Doug Swingley.

While Seavey doesn't want to take anything away from any past champions, he said, "I think having someone new has rekindled a lot of people's interest in the Iditarod. The people are genuinely enthusiastic about my win."

Seavey said his win also puts to rest the idea that the peninsula is too warm and conditions too marginal to produce truly competitive mushers.

"My win brings to the forefront that the peninsula has good mushers, as good as anywhere else. Mushing is alive and well on the peninsula with guys like Osmar, Gebhardt, the Mackeys and others, and it deserves attention."

Tim Osmar of Ninilchik finished 14th, Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, 19th, Lance Mackey of Kasilof, 24th, Jason Mackey of Kasilof, 26th, Bill Hanes of Kasilof, 40th and Rick Casillo of Sterling, 57th.

Seavey also attributes at least part of his success to several changes he made to his team's feeding, breeding, training and conditioning regime this season.

Now that he's won the Iditarod, it's easy to see they were successful changes, but back when he was making them it wasn't so cut and dry.

He wasn't sure what the outcome would be, but he said sometimes you have to take chances.

"Every time I run this race, I like hang my hat on something that made me better. I need to know I'm not doing the same old thing with the same old results," Seavey said.

He wasn't secretive about sharing the changes he made, like some mushers can be, but he said it is difficult to summarize the complexity of them.

"This year, we hit a genetic combination between sprint dogs and distance dogs," he said.

The result was a hybrid that is both ultra-fast and still tough enough to endure the miles required for long-distance racing. Also, seven of the eight dogs Seavey finished with were males, several of which were 3 or older.

Seavey added that he trained longer and harder for this year's race, as well.

However, despite his prerace prognostication that he would win, all the changes made and all the hours of hard work put in, Seavey said there were a few times in the race when he wasn't sure he would win.

This Iditarod was one of closest and most memorable in recent years. Fans following the race were on the edge of their seats as events unfolded and the front-runners seemed to perpetually be in a race-within-the-race. These leaders of the pack switched places daily, and in some cases, hourly.

But, in the end, there only can be one victor, one champion, one first musher to cross under the famous burled arch in Nome.

"When (Kjetil Backen) was six hours ahead, I didn't know if I would catch him. But I said to myself, 'I've never been this close. I've got to go for it,' and so I did. And my team held together and got it done," Seavey said.

The Norwegian musher Backen led for much of the race but finished third.

Seavey's parents, Dan and Shirley Seavey, as well as Mitch's wife, Janine, and two of their four sons, Dallas and Conway, were in Nome to see him win.

Son Danny, currently is in Spain, was unable to attend the event, and Tyrell, who attends the University of Montana, came home to see his dad off in Anchorage, then returned to school.

However, after learning of his father's victory, he decided to fly back to attend the mushers banquet in Nome tonight.

Seavey will be presented with a $69,000 check, Dodge pickup valued at more than $40,000 and the 95-pound bronze sculptor of the Father of the Iditarod, Joe Reding-ton Sr., and his lead dog Feets, which serves as the winner's trophy.

Although Seavey's win propelled him into the limelight, many members of the Seavey family have experience in the race.

Seavey's father not only was one of the people responsible for the race's inception, but he also placed third in 1973 the inaugural year. Danny and Tyrell both have completed the 1,100-mile trek, and Dallas, who placed second in this year's Junior Iditarod, will run with the big dogs in his first Iditarod next year.

The Seaveys' 24th wedding anniversary fell during the race. Celebrating their nuptials after the Iditarod has become commonplace for the couple, but with this year's win, Seavey said they may really pamper themselves.

"I think we may head to the islands," he said. "My wife really wants to go to Hawaii.

"I'd love to do it, but we'll see. I've got to get ready for summer and all the business responsibilities that brings."

For the Seaveys, running dogs isn't a seasonal event, it's a year-round way of life. They maintain the IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours in Seward during the summer. This family business has been successful for more than a decade, and with Seavey winning the Iditarod, things could get even better.

"Winning the Iditarod may increase business," he said. "It's hard to say. I mean the dogs are the real heroes, and that's what the people come to see."

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