Montana's Doug Swingley owns the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race now. He owns it in the way Susan Butcher once owned it and before her Rick Swenson.
There is more to this than just the four victories Swingley has posted over the past eight years -- or the string of three straight.
Swenson, from Two Rivers in the Alaska Interior, still claims more wins with five, and Butcher remains the first Iditarod musher to put together a string of three consecutive victories from 1986-88.
She is retired now, though, and Swenson hasn't won in a decade. He still lurks near the lead, but it isn't like the old days.
No longer is all the attention on Swenson. No longer do other mushers try to read meaning into his every move. No longer does everyone yearn to know the secrets of his training or his feeding.
The man at the center of the focus now is Swingley.
He owns the spotlight, because he has made the Iditarod his own.
He owns the race today because he refused to be satisfied with becoming a footnote: "The first Outside musher to win the Iditarod."
That is, after all, what many expected him to become. His first victory in 1995 was credited as much to luck as skill.
No one denied that Swingley was a skilled dog trainer, but you have to be more than just a skilled dog trainer to win the Iditarod. You have to be a little lucky, too, or truly gifted in the art of picking and conditioning sled dogs.
In that sense, the Iditarod isn't any different from other sports. There are always coaches or players who have a good year or two, only to fade out of the picture. Rare are those who win again and again and again -- the ones like football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant or basketball player Michael Jordan or baseball player Mickey Mantle or golfer Jack Nicklaus or, for that matter, Iditarod musher Butcher.
Thus, it came as no surprise to anyone when Swingley faltered in his bids to win the Iditarod again in 1996 and 1997. Some even criticized him for running too hard to get second in those years, as if he just should have tossed in the towel when it appeared clear he wouldn't win -- instead of going all out until the end.
And when he slipped all the way to ninth in 1998, Alaskans were ready to write him off.
Back in those days, Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser of Big Lake appeared locked in a duel for Iditarod dominance, and Swingley was an afterthought:
The guy from Lincoln, Mont.;
The only Outsider who could be counted on to make a bid;
The one-time sidekick of 1989 champ Joe Runyan, who didn't buy into the idea that the musher who led the race to halfway was doomed to lose.
Though the myth of the "halfway curse" had been destroyed in 1984 by Dean Osmar of Clam Gulch on his way to recording the second-best winning percentage of any Iditarod musher in history -- two races, one victory -- conventional wisdom continued to weigh against the halfway leader.
Sure, King had led to the Iditarod checkpoint and gone on to victory in 1993, just as Swingley would two years later.
But the strategy still looked flawed.
Buser led to halfway in 1996, only to fall to third behind King.
King led to halfway a year later, only to fall to third behind Buser.
John Baker led to halfway in 1998, only to drop all the way to fifth.
Conventional wisdom, in those days, still held that the best place to take the Iditarod's one required 24-hour rest was somewhere well before halfway. At Nikolai just over the Alaska Range from the Anchorage start, or maybe just a little farther up the trail at McGrath or the next checkpoint, Takotna. From there, 725 of the 1,100 trail miles remain.
As a rookie in 1992, Swingley first defied conventional wisdom by finishing half the race before resting. He finished ninth that year and claimed rookie-of-the-year honors. It was the best finish by a rookie in a decade, tying the 1982 ninth-place finish of Stan Zuray of Tanana.
Those were the two best finishes by Iditarod rookies since 1977, but there was still debate about whether Swingley's push to claim the halfway prize had helped or hurt. Some argued that had he raced less and rested more, he might have improved his ninth-place showing.
But Swingley's strategy of racing to halfway had made others ponder whether there might be some advantage to pushing harder sooner.
King tried it the very next year, and it worked. He picked up the halfway prize at Iditarod and went on to win.
When Dave Olesen of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, tried it in 1994, the strategy blew up, as it had for others in previous years. Olesen fell from first at halfway to 16th at the finish.
The next year, though, Swingley was back, first at halfway and first in Nome.
By then, the days of the Iditarod starting as a camping trip to McGrath followed by a race to Nome were history. Every musher was focused on racing strategy as soon as the dogs began the official race north from Wasilla.
That, and a significantly better maintained trail, helped explain why race times fell dramatically -- from the record 14 days, 14 hours that "Yukon Fox" Emmitt Peters ran in a 1975 breakthrough race to the 10 days, 15 hours of Buser in 1994.
More was to come. The very next year, Swingley simply ran away with the Iditarod to claim his first victory in 9 days, 2 hours. It would take him five years to come close to that again.
In 2000, he came within 58 minutes of running the first eight-day Iditarod, shocking the rest of the field.
Swingley, who still held the record time for the race from his first victory in 1995, wasn't terribly excited about getting the new record. But he did confess to designs on the eight-day mark.
"It would have been a milestone," he said. "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."
Of course, that's what other mushers were saying about the nine-day Iditarod when Swingley showed up on the scene in 1992, hellbent on racing the Iditarod all the way from the starting line to Nome.
The record then was the 11 day, 1 hour mark Butcher posted in 1990. Buser, after several years of watching the tactics of Butcher and Swenson, was already eyeing the 10-day mark. He would get it in a time of 10 days, 19 hours in 1992.
The thinking then, however, was that this was just about as fast as a dog team and a musher could go, and the results over the next couple years seemed to confirm that. King dropped the time by only about four hours to best DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow in 1993. Buser ran a time only 10 minutes faster to beat Rick Mackey of Nenana the next year.
Swingley finished in the top 10 both of those years, watching and learning and putting together his own schedule for how to run the Iditarod faster. That schedule led to his breakthrough race in 1995.
A change in the scheduling of the race start had taken a day off the time from the year before, automatically shifting the Iditarod from a 10-day affair to a nine-day affair, but Swingley still posted a time more than half a day faster than the previous best, and close enough to the eight-day mark to make that appear at least possible.
Then he fell back to second, behind King in 1996 and Buser in 1997, and then to ninth in 1998. That's when some other mushers figured he was on the way out. Here was the slide everyone had expected.
After all, hadn't another Montanan made a run at Iditarod greatness only to run out of energy and slip out of sight?
Terry Adkins of Sand Coulee was twice a top-10 finisher in the 1980s, but by the end of that decade he'd fallen to the very bottom of the top 20, and by the time he retired a decade later, he'd dropped even further.
Swingley wasn't going to go away, however. After that ninth-place finish, he returned to the winner's podium in 1999 -- beginning his run of three straight.
Now, the question is if anyone can beat him this year and whether he can better Butcher's record of three straight victories and tie Swenson's record of five wins.
There is debate about whether his dogs gain an advantage by training in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, or whether he benefits from training on good, smooth trail that allows his dogs to become accustomed to running at faster paces, or whether he's found a secret with his 115-mile training runs.
But some Alaska mushers have been doing long training runs for years, and many in recent Iditarods have followed Swingley's strategy of pushing toward halfway before taking the big rest.
And other mushers are training on good, groomed trail systems, too. Former top-10 Iditarod finisher John Barron has taken some of the wind out of the idea of altitude-training. Barron moved from Willow to within 20 miles of Swingley in 2000, thinking the change in altitude might help him in the 2001 Iditarod. The result? Thirty-ninth place, his worst finish ever.
Perhaps Swingley's secret is as simple as an observation made by Willow musher DeeDee Jonrowe.
"The real secret is hard work done 365 days a year," she said. "You can't take away from how hard Doug's gone at this."
Nor should anyone underestimate Swingley's belief in himself and his dog team. He wins, in part, because he believes he and his dogs can win.
He may even have his competitors believing that.
That sort of thinking helped Swenson to his five victories.
That sort of thinking helped Butcher to three straight victories.
It is part of owning the Iditarod, and Doug Swingley owns it today.
Now, it's up to a pack of Alaskans -- King, Buser, Jonrowe, Swenson, last year's second-place finisher Linwood Fiedler of Willow and a handful of others -- to try to take it away.
* Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at email@example.com.