Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., holds many distinctions in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
He was rookie of the year in 1992, became the first musher from outside Alaska to win the championship in 1995 and is one of four competitors to win four times. He and Susan Butcher are the only mushers to win three Iditarod championships in succession.
Swingley, now 50, is the oldest musher to win the Iditarod.
He owns 10 top-10 finishes and twice set race records between Anchorage and Nome; his time of 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes is the record on the race's southern route.
The former mink rancher broke into the sport with his brother Greg as a partner but now operates his kennel with wife, Melanie Shirilla, whom he married on Front Street in Nome in 2002.
During that 2002 Iditarod, Swingley entered as the favorite to become the first musher to win four straight titles, but soon after the race began he slowed his team and chose to make his run to Nome a noncompetitive tourist trip.
Martin Buser, Jeff King and the sometimes blunt Swingley traded Iditarod championships for 11 races in a row until 2003. During that race, Swingley flew his new airplane from Montana to Alaska and was a television commentator on the trail.
What follows are excepts from an extended interview:
"I was always good at any sport I've tried. Baseball, wrestling and football when I was growing up. I always wanted to win, and I wouldn't have participated if I didn't think I had the opportunity to win. From the very first dog sled race I was involved with as a handler for my brother Greg in 1989, I looked at the possibility of making it a career. I think there are a huge percentage of Iditarod mushers who just want to get to the finish line. I want to win.
"I've enjoyed the lifestyle of working with dogs immensely. You always have dreams of putting it together and making a career out of it, but I don't think you could ever anticipate what it was going to be like. Ranching was my career before dog mushing, and it was not a huge change in my lifestyle.
"My first Iditarod in 1992 I learned a whole bunch. I started racing in 1989, so I had some time to be what I considered seasoned by my first Iditarod. I was too naive to realize you are not seasoned until you've done it.
"The Iditarod was just another dog race to me, so I felt I could win or, if nothing else, be competitive. I finished ninth and I was unhappy.
"I'm the ultimate competitor and I'm only happy with perfection, which, people now know, would define my career. I think I let everybody know after the race was over how I felt, and maybe that's where I got the 'cocky' prefix to my name. I think a lot of people would have been gushing about how well they had done.
"In the past, even mushers who entered the Iditarod from other states have moved to Alaska if they did well, but I think people have realized that I am a fourth-generation Montanan, and I'm not going to move to Alaska. I haven't changed who I am. Everybody else moved to Alaska who has ever been a competitor, because it is more difficult if you don't live there.
"There are logistical problems living in Montana. I've overcome what a lot of people thought was not possible. I found a training area and a great place to develop a dog team for the Iditarod, and I don't think anybody can argue with that now. There's still the logistical problem of getting the dogs there.
"My race starts long before someone in Alaska because I have to drive 2,400 miles up the highway to get my dogs there. I have to get there early because I can't have the vet check them anywhere but there.
"The Iditarod makes it a lot easier for an Alaskan to get ready for the Iditarod than it does for a Montanan or a European or anyone else. They make the same demands on us that they would make if we lived in downtown Anchorage.
"When I won in 1995, everyone assumed it was just a fluke, even though I set a new record of 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes. There was a feeling that everyone else failed and I succeeded. Then, when I took second the next two years it was a major defeat. A lot of people would be tickled to death to take second place, but because it was me I was laughed at.
"That was largely because I was from outside of Alaska. The people of Alaska wanted their trophy back. And every time I got beat it just vindicated that the Alaskans were the best mushers.
"By 2000, when I had won it three times and it was very apparent that I wasn't going anywhere, there seemed to be thoughts that maybe there's a secret weapon. Maybe altitude where I trained being more than a mile high. But by 2000 I was secure in a place that this wasn't a fluke, and I just laughed about it.
"To me, I was doing nothing different than anybody else in Alaska. I was just working hard, and I just came up with a phenomenal group of dogs and understood them and understood the race. There were no secrets.
"I think that any time you don't go someone else's way they would rather it come out that the other guy had some advantage rather than the finger being pointed at them that they didn't do something right. (Alaskans) certainly didn't want to point fingers at one of their mushers for not doing something right.
"No one is unbeatable. There's a bank of information that I use. It all comes down to implementing all of this information and making it so -- not that you're unbeatable -- but so you have an opportunity to win.
"It's distracting to think that way, that someone is unbeatable. In this sport, hope springs eternal. Alaskans didn't care which Alaskan won; they just hoped an Alaskan would win.
"Dog mushing is not an individual sport. We're dealing with a whole bunch of volunteers, 16 of them, that we're telling what to do, and they depend on us 100 percent. The difference between human sports and dog sports is that the musher is also the manager. He can have the biggest ego in the world, he can build his plan off of all of these slights and build a vendetta against whomever he wants to battle, but it won't do any good if he can't implement it with his teammates.
"Probably my most fun Iditarod was when I won in 1995, my fourth race. I had been sixth the year before, so I was definitely a top-10 guy, but I was not seen as a top contender.
"I had run enough races to know I was gonna be in the top 10, but I don't think when it started I was convinced I was going to win. At some point in your career, you have the ability to identify a great dog team, but this was my first observation of everything coming together. It was the most fun, because I knew that the dogs were having as much fun as I was and there were all kinds of possibilities.
"By the time I got to Unalakleet, I knew it was going to be very difficult for anyone to keep up with me. That made it gratifying. But it was agonizing to know that I had to keep going for two-and-a-half more days before I found out. It's like a kid before Christmas. You know that the presents are all under the tree, but you won't get to open them for a few days.
"I'm never really super exuberant in Nome because I've kind of emotionally gone through the whole thing in my mind the last few miles. I think the happiness and joy come between Safety and into Nome. You know you're gonna get there, the last 22 miles. That's when mounds of emotion, especially the first time, overcomes you. I'm not jumping up and down like a little kid that I've won -- obviously I'm happy that I've won -- but I'm emotionally exhausted.
"The victory meant that I had solidified my career as a dog musher and now it was going to be a lifestyle. At least in the mid-1990s, it meant a career financially.
"I never really felt that I was representing other mushers who came from outside of Alaska. I've never felt like I was any different than any of my competitors. I just came from a different place.
"I think what I realized after that -- and that the Iditarod found out -- is that my win enlightened more of the world about Iditarod because all of a sudden this guy from Outside went up there and won an Alaska event. Whether or not Alaska wanted to admit it, it was still perceived as an Alaska event until I won it, and then that brought more of the world into it.
"I just happened to be the first guy from Outside. Like Libby Riddles was the first woman. All of a sudden, it opened all kinds of doors for women to race in the Iditarod. It gave them hope, and it brought a whole lot of fans in from all over. Now if you were a fan of a musher from Michigan, no longer did you have to look at him just as a guy who was going to go up there and run the Iditarod. You could look at him maybe as a guy who could go up there and win.
"By the time I got home to Montana, my answering machine was filled with people who wanted me to go places. I think that I traveled 250,000 air miles in 1995. It was a little bit overwhelming. You don't sign up for the Iditarod in anticipation of having that kind of reception when you win. You're winning for your own ego and for your own values. All of a sudden you start picking up the phone and people from all over the world are asking you to do things.
"That's the level of interest there was worldwide.
"Then it sunk in that I got to be the first from Outside to do that. It was agonizing when I didn't win again right away. Remember, I was the guy from Outside. I was a very confident individual, and I couldn't get it done again. It was so easy in 1995, and all of a sudden it became difficult. I had the obligations of being a professional musher, making appearances, representing companies, and some of it was misery. I was relieved when I won in 1999. I don't think I was as excited or happy as relieved.
"Every one that you win, you step closer to infamy. Maybe it's lasting fame, but it becomes infamy because it's hard to find people that have positive things to say about people who win too much. When Susan Butcher won three in a row in 1986, 1987 and 1988, people didn't care who beat her, they just wanted someone else to win.
"I think after I won in 2000 and in 2001, Alaskans finally accepted me. It was sustained excellence and the fact that maybe you are able to withstand the stoning. They had thrown all of the negatives at me and I could still do just as well as I had always done. That breeds admiration.
"My hardest victory occurred in the 2001 race. The 2000 race was hard because I broke my ribs. Two fractured ribs. I was on massive amounts of Aleve. It happened in the first mile between Wasilla and Knik. I went a long ways with it.
"But that was a phenomenal dog team, where I could have hung on to win if I had been a paraplegic. I think, though, that there were people who finally realized that I was the real thing at that point.
"Some people appreciate indications that you might be tough. But the conditions were fairly easy. I wouldn't have wanted to have broken ribs in 2001.
"Because 2001 was the toughest race in my career (and) the most satisfying. It was Mother Nature's vendetta against dog mushers. There was no snow at the start of the race. We had to change the location of the start to Willow.
"The conditions for the first few hundred miles were satisfactory, and the temperature was OK. It didn't get over 30 degrees during the day. The conditions weren't as bad as we anticipated, so we got lulled into this false sense of security and when we left Rohn all hell broke loose.
"I blasted through Rohn, but I picked up a few followers. Everybody had caught on to Doug Swingley's plan. Paul Gebhardt, Mitch Seavey, Rick Swenson, Rick Mackey, Jerry Riley and DeeDee Jonrowe followed. I was not lonely. Now there was no snow and the trail was very rough. The frozen tussocks and sticks and stumps made it very dangerous. Mushers think mainly of survival on a trail like that.
"You have to be on your toes. The race doesn't mean a thing. Now we're running on bare ground. We're running in little dust clouds. It was hard to see because of dirt flying. Instead of a blizzard it was dirt.
"You were dodging stumps and sticks and rocks, and the foremost thing on your mind was just getting to Nikolai. There were a lot of wrecks in there. I was fortunate. I was 100 percent healthy. The team got through it without too many malfunctions.
"Nothing broke that I couldn't fix, and in Nikolai I kind of regrouped and felt I had dodged a bullet. Now the race was back on again. We fixed our bruises. I was black and blue. The trail was as bad as anybody had seen it. I think DeeDee launched over her sled a couple of times. You found broken pieces of equipment on the trail.
"It was better leaving Nikolai, and I've always felt the test of the caliber of my dog team is between Nikolai and McGrath. I know that trail is always going to be good. If I had done any damage to the dog team in those tough circumstances it was going to show up. I let the dogs stretch out a little bit to see if we had created any problems, and the team was just perfect. Cola, Abby, Peppy and Stormy were the main leaders.
"Everything was going according to plan. The team fired like it was supposed to, and when we reached Takotna I was confident I had most of the competition in hand.
"I stayed six hours and took off for what I think is going to be a fairly uneventful run to Iditarod and cruised through Ophir. All of a sudden, about 20 miles outside of Ophir, there is no snow again. To me, this is a worse place to be without snow -- worse than between Rohn and Nikolai. The country is hilly and filled with tussocks. There was no trail.
"The salvation between Rohn and Nikolai was that the dogs had something to follow, even if it was an indentation in the tundra where it had been packed down and you're just following a dirt furrow.
"But between Ophir and Iditarod there was none of that because the trail is not used by anyone. If you go to Iditarod, you use an airplane. Even the trail setters couldn't find the trail. It was very, very rough.
"It was almost impossible for the dogs to pull with you standing on the runners, and I think I had 14 dogs at that point. The tundra tussocks were like going across sandpaper. So I trudged on foot behind, running when I could, and the dogs slowed to a virtual walk. Even when we hit downhill parts they refused to speed up because the footing is so insecure.
"This was the first time in my career I had seen the dogs in self-survival mode. There was an inch of snow here and there. Peppy, who has never been long on brains, realized that if he followed the snowmachine tracks we'd be on the trail. He learned it on his own. I got to Iditarod first without too much damage to the dog team.
"You know that it is going to be just as tough for the other mushers, so you think if somebody else gets through it better than you did you just have to accept it and wait for the next challenge.
"Linwood Fiedler decided to go on to Anvik, and it was thrilling for everyone to see, that someone was going to be innovative.
"I knew I had a better dog team, though. The terrain to Shageluk wasn't a whole lot better than getting into Iditarod. At Grayling, I was going into a ground blizzard on the Yukon River. There was no relief, no trees, no protection from Mother Nature. The wind was 30 mph right into your face. Visibility was nil.
"It was getting dark, and I knew visibility was going to be even more impaired by the blowing snow. For five or 10 miles I kept thinking, 'Maybe I should go back.'
"I never thought of turning around on the Iditarod Trail before. I always had the utmost confidence in that dog team that if I pointed them in one direction they were prepared to go to it. But I was starting to believe that maybe this was a strategic mistake. But ... I got to the point of no return. I figured I had got myself into this thing and now I had to find the best way out of it.
"The wind chill was probably minus-20 or minus-30. The snow was blowing really bad, and the trail was soft. I had trouble choosing leaders that would complement each other. I don't think anybody can ever tell you that they weren't cold out there, but you're not worried about dying or not surviving. I think you're more concerned about your dog team.
"I ended up with Peppy and Vuarnet in lead, and it worked out great. Only by that circumstance did I find an incredible leader, and I made it through to Eagle Island. I liken it to a training run. You don't ask the dogs to do anything but work cohesively until you get to the next spot. You're just getting to the next point. I stopped whenever the wind was blowing and petted them and fed them several times.
"There were some bad sections of trail and windy sections, and I was happy to get to Kaltag. After 150 miles on the Yukon River, you're happy to get off of it. Once again the dogs were vibrant and willing to eat, so you reaffirm the fact that you were easy on them.
"We were on the Bering Sea Coast now, and we were at the mercy of the wind. There were some difficult times. It was the only time I had to walk in front of my dogs, between Elim and White Mountain. At the top of Little McKinley the wind was howling, there was fresh snow and visibility was down to less than 20 feet.
"We went through a herd of caribou, and that was spectacular.
"After White Mountain, when you have 70 or 80 miles to go and an eight-hour lead, everything becomes calm. You can turn on your radio and listen to the KNOM race reports. I heard that my sister, Marvel Lumley, had come in to Nome -- that was a surprise -- to greet me.
"It was my hardest and most gratifying race. Anybody who enters the Iditarod is in it for the adventure. There are a lot of things you can do in your lifetime, but few things will throw as much adventure at you as the Iditarod with 16 dogs. There are so many variables. I think this was the most adventurous race.
"The 2002 race was different. It took restraint for me to not be competitive in 2002. I was proud of myself that I could hold back. I pulled over early and took a rest and then just took the team to Nome without racing. In all of the years I raced the Iditarod, I never had an opportunity just to enjoy it. The Iditarod had always been nine or 10 days of the same kind of work I do all year long.
"I enjoyed the ability to see the trail at my own pace, largely in daylight. It was fun to see people in the villages I hadn't had time to see because my race plan had been to camp on the trail. I had a great time.
"In a competitive Iditarod, you sacrifice certain things. This was the reverse. I had time to stop and do whatever I wanted. I could rest the dogs and I could sleep. I could stay in a village for eight hours instead of four. I had 14 dogs lope into Nome the way they loped out of Anchorage. I stopped every hour to pet that dog team. I had a great reception of well-wishers.
"I proposed to Melanie near Knik, and I surprised her. The night before the start of the Iditarod I didn't sleep, which is fairly common. I decided if this gal was willing to put up with my whims and with my decision to do something this crazy and stupid, maybe she's willing to accept anything I do from here on out.
"I wasn't sure she would say yes. I gave her two seconds to think about it just before the Knik Bar -- she knew I'd never leave Knik if she didn't answer me. And, obviously, she said yes.
"I committed to stopping at every checkpoint, and I think I had a drink at every one except Knik. Typically, in Safety, people throw their bib on and off they go to Nome. But I walked into the bar and said, 'Bartender, give me a shot of whisky.'
"It's like an Old West bar, small, not a lot of room in there. The bartender turned around and saw it was me and was surprised. He said, 'It's on the house.'
"Some people think I retired from the Iditarod, but I thought I made it clear it was just a sabbatical. I'll be back. Me and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"But I think I want to go and do different things. People don't realize that the Iditarod consumes your life. I will be back, and I will win the Iditarod again at some point. I just don't know when.
"Maybe sooner than you think."