Racing association makes athletes' day

Doggone special

Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Two separate organizations came together for a good cause Sunday, when a group of athletes from the Central Peninsula Special Olympics joined the Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association for the annual "Pet-a-thon" at Snaggletooth Kennels in Sterling.

"I like all the barking. It's neat," said Elijah Stafford, a Special Olympics athletes.

Stafford walked up and down the rows of dogs that were all jumping and yapping with excitement. He spent several minutes in particular with a gentle dog with an all white coat.

"He's my favorite because he's nice," Stafford said.

"He really likes dogs," said his mother, Susie Stafford, emphasizing the word "really."

"We moved here from California and there's nothing like this there. It's really nice of these people to take the time to share their dogs with us."

"I like petting them," said Rob Wilusz, another athlete enjoying the dog yard.

His mother, Katherine Wilusz, expressed that her son's comment was a understatement.

"He's done this for more than 10 years now, and he always looks forward to it. He especially likes the sled rides," Wilusz said. "Every year we have to talk him out of getting a dog team after it's over."

Chris Tarpey came with his family from Seward for the event. He has Down syndrome, but he doesn't let that stop him from mushing dogs. He belongs to the Anchorage and Chugiak dog clubs.

"This year he mushed in a six-dog sprint class and loved it," said his mother, Shirley. "He also ran in the Junior North American Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks."

Tarpey enjoyed the sled rides, despite the novelty of being in the basket instead of behind the sled.

"That was awesome," he said.

Gail Hoekman and her husband, Phil, have not only been PSDRA members for close to 30 years, but they also are the owners of Snaggletooth Kennels. They spoke about all the work that went into preparing the dogs and dog yards for the athletes.

"I really like the looks on their faces from the close interaction with the dogs," said Gail Hoekman. "No matter how cold it is, they always have a huge grin on their face after the sled rides."

In addition to tours through the dog yard and sled rides, the event featured a barbecue where athletes roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, plus there were other treats.

Tarpey worked up an appetite while having fun with the dogs. He cooked and ate four hot dogs, in addition to sampling several other goodies.

"He would eat four more if you let him," joked Phil Hoekman. "He loves eating almost as much as he loves dogs."

The event wound down after several hours and the PSDRA presented a check to the athletes of the Special Olympics on behalf of the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary in Soldotna. They donated $250 to the Special Olympics through the PSDRA, as well as giving another $250 to PSDRA itself, which was partially used for funding the day's food and festivities.

In addition to the donation, the athletes themselves have been collecting money from friends and family members. The money will be used for training the athletes and to get them to the state games.

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