NOME -- There was a sickening pop, followed by an eerie silence as the crowd inside Breakers Bar realized what they'd witnessed: Aliy Zirkle had just broken some woman's arm.
Grace Liu learned a painful lesson about tangling with mushers Wednesday night in Nome when Zirkle, a 45-year-old sled dog racing superstar from Two Rivers, snapped the California lawyer's arm like a piece of driftwood during an arm-wrestling match just hours after the 15-time Iditarod finisher guided her team to a fifth-place finish in the 2015 Iditarod.
"Everyone gasped," said Liu, a 36-year-old patent lawyer from Fresno. "And you know it takes a lot to quiet a bar in Nome."
Zirkle said it was her first arm-wrestling contest. And likely her last.
"God, I feel bad," she said Friday.
Big Iditarod fan
By the following day, the incident was the talk of the historic gold mining town of 3,800 people, where rumors of the unbelievable contest spread faster than a sled dog charging out of the starting chute.
"It's funny how fast news travels around Nome," Liu said Friday from Breakers, a rough-and-tumble joint on Front Street with a sign hanging inside that reads "No Sniveling" and a box crammed full of VHS tapes of amateur boxing matches beneath the dart board.
Everywhere Liu went, people stopped her to ask about her right arm, which was covered in a fiberglass splint. Upon hearing what happened, some reacted with disbelief. Others stopped to snap Liu's picture.
The Harvard-educated attorney who works for the California State University system said she never expected to become part of the story of The Last Great Race, an event the die-hard mushing fan has traveled to Alaska five times to watch. She said it's fair to say she's in love with the state and its signature winter sporting event.
“People who live up here choose to live up here because they choose not to take the easy way out in life, and I have a lot of respect for that,” she said.
Breakers was packed with spectators for the contest, which began at 7 p.m., four hours and 15 minutes after Zirkle and her team arrived at the finish line, just a bone's throw away from the bar.
After losing one match and winning two others, Liu found herself face-to-face with Zirkle, who is known as one of the most competitive mushers in the sport. The first and only woman to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, Zirkle finished second in the Iditarod three straight years from 2012 to 2014. Liu said she was thrilled to be matched up with the famous musher.
"I was really excited. I mean, how many times do you get to arm-wrestle an Iditarod musher?" she said.
The raucous crowd was cheering both women on.
"It was packed," Liu recalled. "Arm wrestling in Nome, as you can imagine, is pretty popular."
The bout lasted about 10 seconds, Liu said. As Zirkle began to get the upper hand, Liu turned her shoulder to try and counter Zirkle's strength – a move that proved disastrous.
"I think my arm was slowly moving back and that's when I made my fatal – not fatal but arm-breaking error," she said.
'It was awful'
Liu said Zirkle was mortified.
"She just looked shocked and horrified," Liu said. "She goes, 'Oh my gosh, I felt that break.'"
Zirkle said the sound wasn't as bad as feeling Liu's arm let go.
"All of a sudden – it was awful, it was bad – her arm broke," said Zirkle, who got about a two-hour nap between finishing the race and entering the contest.
Liu said the break didn't hurt all that much. Adrenaline and shock dulled the pain.
Someone who works for a local mining company – Liu doesn't know who – offered her a ride to the hospital in a pickup. There, she learned she had a spiral fracture of the humerus, the long bone in the upper arm between elbow and shoulder. She got a fiberglass splint and plans to have a full cast put on after she gets home Sunday night. Doctors tell her it'll take at least six weeks to heal.
Liu learned later that Zirkle's handler, 2012 Iditarod finisher Ryne Olson, ended up winning the contest. Zirkle took second.
Liu said she "absolutely" plans to return to Nome, where she and friends have met up several times for weeklong vacations, watching mushers and their teams pull into town. This year just happened to be a little bit crazier than most.
The broken arm, she said, is a small price to pay for perhaps the most talked-about story of the Iditarod – a 1,000-mile race won this year by Dallas Seavey for the second straight time.
Zirkle very fit
Liu joked that mushers like Dallas Seavey and his dad Mitch – who finished one spot in front of Zirkle to win the 2013 race – better make sure not to cross Zirkle out on the trail.
"I've been joking like, 'Yeah, that girl will break your arm to get what she wants,'" she said. "If Dallas or Mitch ever come in with a broken bone, you'll know who did it."
When told what had happened Wednesday night at Breakers, both Seaveys politely declined comment.
Zirkle said she's sorry the break happened and said the competition will be the final arm wrestling tournament of her career.
"First arm wrestling competition and last arm wrestling competition," she said.
Liu said she holds no hard feelings toward Zirkle. And although she's a lawyer, she said suing the musher is the last thing she'd want to do.
"I'm not a litigious person," she said.
Zirkle said she has a huge amount of respect for her broken-armed competitor.
"More than you know," she said. "She walked off to the hospital with a smile on her face."
Liu said she's always respected Zirkle for the musher's relentless drive to win the Iditarod, and the arm wrestling match only served to crystallize her belief that sled dog racers are a breed apart.
"When you see her, she is fit, she is strong and this is her dream -- she really goes for it," Liu said.
Zirkle said she's been working out hard in preparation for Iditarod and is as "fit as a person can be."
Zirkle agreed that the story is likely to be talked about for a while.
“She experienced Iditarod firsthand,” she said. “Her right hand.”