Defending champ couldn't quit on Native people

Iditarod champion said retiring would be like quitting on his fans.

Associated PressMarch 5, 2012 

It took John Baker 16 tries to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He had to think long and hard about coming back to defend his title.

The 49-year-old Inupiat musher from Kotzebue, who has become an icon of sorts for Alaska Native youth, said he couldn't retire because so many people are counting on him.

"Seems to be a lot of excitement around the state from the win we had last time," the soft-spoken musher said before the race started on Saturday.

After Baker spent time in the Nome winner's circle last year with his lead dogs, Snickers and Velvet, he went to the town's convention center to speak with fans.

He was tired, bleary eyed and barely able to stay awake. He said at the time he's more affected than others by sleep deprivation on the trail and couldn't commit to running another Iditarod.

But once he caught up on sleep, he said he looked around and saw all the people counting on him to run again, from family to friends to the extended Alaska Native community.

"It would kind of be quitting people" if he didn't race, he said.

"Throughout the years, from the first time John Baker entered the Iditarod race, our entire region was there to support him, pray for him, encourage him, and then of course, for the 2011 championship, we were just doubly overjoyed; very emotional victory for so many of us," said Marie N. Greene, president and CEO of NANA Region Corp., a regional Alaska Native corporation.

When he isn't training for the race, Baker travels to Alaska villages to deliver a message to Native children: Work hard, follow your dreams, and you can do it.

He was the keynote speaker last fall at the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state's largest gathering of Native people. He espoused those themes to a standing-room only crowd and was besieged for autographs following the address.

"He has really given our students, our young people the encouragement needed," Greene said. "No matter what our dreams are, we can keep on trying and one day we'll accomplish those goals, just like he did."

Baker said he has seen one change since he's become an Iditarod champion. Children treat him a little bit differently.

"They were quiet and listening for once," he said.

Associated Press reporter Mary Pemberton contributed to this story.

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