Swingley has no problem being removed from Alaska's mushing elite

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

LINCOLN, Mont. (AP) -- The route from Great Falls to Doug Swingley's sturdy Montana stone house erected here amid towering 300-year-old Ponderosa Pines, crosses 5,600-foot Rogers Pass and the Continental Divide.

West. The same direction the first Swingleys took when they arrived in the United States from Germany and pushed on past Missouri to Montana in 1835. They settled in Great Falls and put down roots now 165 years deep.

Swingleys raised cattle. Swingleys rode horses. Swingleys befriended America's favorite cowboy artist, Charlie Russell. Through the generations, many Swingleys dispersed. Doug is a stayer.

As three-time champion and record-holder in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the world's most prestigious mushing event, the gravitational pull northward is strong for Swingley. Yet he is not at all tempted to move. Swingley is the only victor in the 28-year-history of the 1,100-mile race who doesn't live in Alaska. Most other champions were born elsewhere, but were already long-time Alaskans when they won. Swingley is unique. Some winters he does his pre-Iditarod racing in the Lower 48, too, never showing up in Alaska until he wins in March.

''Adds to the mystery,'' said Willow, Alaska, musher DeeDee Jonrowe.

Being removed from Alaska mushing circles doesn't faze Swingley one bit.

''I enjoy being out of the loop,'' said Swingley. ''I'm sure I'm the brunt of a lot of talk, and I don't hear that.''

Swingley, 47, made his fame and fortune in Alaska, but he is as entrenched here as this 1918 house built on his 40 acres. As he gazed around a living room decorated with Indian paintings and western bronze sculptures, there was no room for misunderstanding.

''I'm a Montanan,'' said Swingley.

He is rock-solid about it.

At the end of September, it was cold in the Rocky Mountains, 19 degrees at Swingley's spread on a fine, bright morning. Lincoln is situated 4,500 feet above sea level, a remote community of 1,000-plus people. Highway 200 is a main drag with a strip of businesses. Houses are set back from the two-lane road, beyond cattle guards, in the tall trees.

Montana is a major element of the Swingley saga. Until he won his first Iditarod crown in 1995, prevailing wisdom, or perhaps conceit, dictated that it was impossible to become champion unless one lived in Alaska. And other than Swingley, the highest finish by an outsider is the third place recorded by Canadian Larry ''Cowboy'' Smith in 1983.

Swingley's performances were extraordinary from the start. His ninth-place, rookie-of-the-year finish in 1992 is one of only two top-10 rookie placings since the infancy of the Iditarod.

In 1995, Swingley won in record time of 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes. Swingley won again in 1999. That made him the oldest-ever champ, eclipsing Dick Mackey's 1978 record and earning him a place in Iditarod lore for mushing hundreds of miles with cracked ribs.

In 2000, Swingley solidified his standing among the all-time elite with a third Iditarod championship. Once again he set a record, finishing in 9 days, 58 minutes, just missing the first 8-day Iditarod.

''It would have been a milestone for the event,'' said Swingley. ''I would have liked to have done it, not for my own selfishness. It'll be the last daily barrier. It's never going to be seven days.''

Swingley later thought of several ways he lost time, most notably by oversleeping for 2 1/2 hours on the trail between Galena and Nulato. When he lay down for a nap, he placed a tiny alarm clock inside his hat. The temperature dropped and he woke up shivering. When he moved to a warmer spot, he dropped the clock.

When Swingley first won, Alaskans probed for an explanation. When he won again and again, competitors saluted him.

''The real secret is hard work done 365 day a year,'' said Jonrowe. ''You can't take away from how hard Doug's gone at this.''

Three-time champion Martin Buser echoed the sentiment.

''Seasoned racers know there's no secret potion or snake oil that makes him go faster,'' said Buser. ''It's hard work.''

From unknown to reigning king in less than a decade. Recently, Outside magazine was among those taking notice. In its December issue, the publication ranked Swingley No. 14 among its ''25 most extraordinary adventurers, outdoor athletes and explorers.'' That put him ahead of two-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong.

''I was kind of excited about being in there with the likes of Lance Armstrong,'' said Swingley. ''I hope I live up to the task.''

Which can only mean winning another Iditarod. Rick Swenson is the all-time leader with five victories. Susan Butcher is the only other musher with four. Swingley insisted he doesn't think about matching them.

''I don't care if I win another Iditarod,'' said Swingley. ''I don't have the hunger to win like I had.''

How then to explain this: Swingley arrived home from an out-of-state trip at 1:30 a.m. that day. Five hours later he was running dogs.

Swingley was a mink rancher in the late 1980s, when one of his clients for ground-up feed was musher Terry Adkins. Adkins, of Sand Coulee, Mont., raced in 21 Iditarods, often placing in the money. If a Montanan sought mushing tips, Adkins was the guy to see.

However, it was Greg Swingley, Doug's brother, who first became infatuated with the sport. Although the brothers' partnership has dissolved, for most of the 1990s Greg played a pivotal role in polishing Doug's Iditarod team.

Greg Swingley, 44, said he built his own sled as a teen-ager and hooked up a Lab-Norwegian elk hound that refused to pull one of the three Swingley sisters as a passenger.

As a University of Montana student, the younger Swingley said he mushed on the darkened streets of Missoula between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. by tying dogs to his mountain bike. Later, Greg picked Adkins' brains, staking out his dogs in the yard while he visited. Adkins said he has a hilarious video of Greg loading 11 dogs into a small hatchback.

''When it was time to leave, he would stand there and call them and they would jump in the car,'' said Adkins.

In 1989, Greg Swingley won the Race to the Sky, Montana's most significant race, with dogs borrowed from Adkins. That year, said Doug Swingley, he took his first four-wheeler ride with Greg.

''I just loved it,'' he said.

They began mushing together. The mink farm produced ''lots of free food,'' said Doug, and soon the brothers were going all-out in the dog business. Greg typically raced the team in middle-distance events, but Doug always drove in the Iditarod.

''I never had aspirations for the Iditarod,'' Greg said recently.

Once he became immersed in mushing, Doug Swingley sought advice, too.

Swingley's good friend, Joe Runyan, the 1989 Iditarod champion, said Swingley spent a few weeks with him and bought dogs.

''Pretty soon he took off like a meteor,'' said Runyan.

Since Greg diverted his focus away from mushing about two years ago, Doug has relied on girlfriend Melanie Shirilla for training help.

Shirilla, a former vet tech at an animal hospital, last winter placed third in her first major race, the Wyoming Rocky Mountain Stage Stop.

''It was so much fun,'' she said.

Swingley has won both Iditarods since Shirilla became involved in the operation. Her voice thickened with emotion when she recounted the sight of the dogs trotting down Front Street in Nome.

''It's really touching when they come across the finish line,'' said Shirilla.

Even if the sport remains a little foreign, Montanans, who like Alaskans have no major professional sports teams, appreciate Swingley's triumphs. All three times he won the Iditarod title, the Montana state legislature proclaimed ''Doug Swingley Day.'' At a celebration in Lincoln, Swingley was hauled through town on a fire engine to the community center, before signing autographs and posters.

He is popular enough elsewhere. In the 2000 off-season, Swingley appeared on the ''Today'' show in New York and at an Iditarod sponsorship luncheon in Alaska. He made an appearance for Boeing aircraft in Seattle. He attended mushing symposiums in Iowa and Wisconsin. And he made his usual 15 days of annual appearances for Excel, his dog-food sponsor.

But the toy thing was his strangest gig.

Swingley toured the United States promoting the ''Poo-Chi Interactive Puppy,'' an animated toy costing about $25. In a reasonable emulation of Santa Claus, he mushed six dogs down New York's Madison Avenue and into a store.

Swingley has a couple of the plastic pups, which zoom around and even sing. ''I'll always be known for this, if nothing else,'' Swingley said, chuckling.



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