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Norwegian domination? Tough mushers from northern Europe could own Iditarod 42

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
There are five Norwegians mushing in the 2014 Iditarod. From left: rookie Tommy Jordbrudal, rookie Ralph Johannessen, two-time winner Robert Sorlie, 2013 rookie of the year Joar Leifseth Ulsom, and rookie Yvonne Dabakk. Loren Holmes photos

Team Norway is back, but it looks a little different this year.

For the first time since 2007, Norwegian champion Robert Sorlie will be back on the runners in downtown Anchorage, starting his first Iditarod in almost a decade. The keen musher, who is tall, lanky and known for his calculated and methodical approach to racing, is expected to be dominant.

"(The Norwegians) don't come to camp; they come to race," according to Iditarod Insider commentator and former Iditarod racer Bruce Lee.

Sorlie isn't the only Norwegian expected to be a top contender. He's joined by Joar Leifseth Ulsom, 27, the 2013 rookie of the year, who hails from Mo i Rana and stunned the field with the fastest rookie finish ever in seventh place.

Then there's Ralph Johannessen, 54, of Dagali. Considered a shoo-in for rookie of the year, some consider him to be a better musher than Sorlie.

There's also Tommy Jordbrudal and Yvonne Dabakk, fellow rookies who train and work in Alaska most of the year.

Dabakk, 31, who's racing a team of purebred Siberian huskies, doesn't have any expectations about being competitive this year. Her hope is to make it all the way to Nome with her young squad.

On Thursday night at the Iditarod banquet, she shared a table with fellow Norwegian Jordbrundal. The connections between the Norwegian mushers run deep. Dabakk's husband, Kenneth, is from the same town as Ulsom. Dabakk and Jordbrundal once lived on the same remote Arctic Island. Sorlie and Johannessen are close friends who brought all 34 of their dogs to Alaska together. When their gear got caught up in customs, Ulsom lent a sled, harnesses and other gear to the two men.

Sorlie has also served as a mentor to Dabakk.

"He has this aura," she said. "He's so kind, so gentle. He's always willing to share."

She paused.

"At least with me -- maybe not with Ralph."

Changing the game

What would mushing be like without Robert Sorlie? The 56-year-old Norwegian from Hurdal was at the forefront of a new style of long-distance racing. His strategy focused on long, steady runs followed by shorter rests. In 2003, Sorlie cruised to his first victory on a modified trail, and spending most of the time on the flat, steady Yukon River. He won by 90 minutes in 2003. He proved it wasn't a fluke, returning in 2005 to do it again, this time by 45 minutes.

It was a salvo in the sport that had been long dominated by teams like Jeff King and Martin Buser, speed masters whose quick times between checkpoints were followed by rests as long -- if not longer -- than the run times themselves.

Sorlie is back in the Iditarod this year for the first time since finishing 12th in 2007, his fourth race. He was ninth as a rookie in 2002. His winning percentage of .500 is tied for best in Iditarod history. By comparison, defending champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling has gone two for 20, a winning percentage of .100, with a much larger body of work.

It may have been seven years since his last attempt, but don't expect Sorlie to sit back and make the race a camping trip.

And despite his rookie status, don't expect Johannessen to sit back either. Johannessen won the Femundlopet race last year, making him the reigning Norwegian national dog mushing champion. In his career, which stretches back to his first Alaskan husky team in 1991, Johannessen has won or been a top contender in every race in Europe. He's considered one of the continent's best mushers, winning the 1,000-kilometer Finnmarkslopet three times -- in 2009, 2010 and 2012.

But racing in Europe isn't the Iditarod. In an interview in December, Johannessen admitted that one of his biggest challenges during his rookie run will be adjusting to the 1,600-kilometer Iditarod.

"It's important to get a feel for the race and to have enough power for the end," he said through a translator.

Whether the worry is warranted remains to be seen. Johannessen's dogs are descendants of animals that contributed to the late Susan Butcher's four Iditarod titles, mixed with other Norwegian husky breeds, making them strong and well-built with thick coats. Those coats could come in handy when Johannessen reaches the coast. Also handy? Johannessen's training. He lives in the mountains, about 1,200 meters above sea level. In December he showed off a video of the team training in icy, windy conditions that looked similar to conditions seen on Alaska's western coast.

Messing with their heads?

Does the return of Sorlie mess with other competitors? Some have suggested that Sorlie may already have gotten into the heads of some of his competitors. They disagree.

"He's not a wild card anymore," said Jake Berkowitz, 27, of Big Lake, who placed eighth in 2013. "He's a proven champion. He's not in my head any more than Dallas (Seavey, 2012 champion) or Mitch (Seavey, 2013 champion) or any of the others."

Nathan Schroeder, three-time champion of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northern Minnesota, is also in contention for rookie of the year honors. After sizing up Johannessen, he sees one weakness: His seriousness.

"I'm more laid-back," Schroeder, 36, said. "I'm not sure he'll be as adaptable, but it's hard to say."

Aaron Burmeister of Nenana is well aware of how Sorlie changed the race, bringing a new style that makes sure that when mushers get to the starting line, they better be ready to race. But knowing that Sorlie is back hasn't changed his training or how he's approaching the 2014 race.

"A lot of people have been talking about it screwing with their heads," Burmeister said. "I try not to worry about anyone else. I just have to get to the coast, and then it'll be game on."

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