Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie Amanda Otto hadn’t planned on being a musher.
The 28-year-old from Idaho was going to be a professional soccer player six years ago, but an injury thwarted those hopes. She moved to Alaska shortly after to learn about mushing and took to it naturally.
On Sunday, she launched her journey toward Nome with a dog team raised and trained by Denali Park musher Jeff King, her mentor and one of the sport’s top racers.
“I’ve been embodying a sponge for the last couple years, just to absorb everything from him and from the dogs,” she said. “Training in the Interior is absolutely fantastic.”
Otto grew up in a small town nestled near the Wyoming border and the Teton Mountains. She was first introduced to mushing at age 8 when she competed in and won a mutt race at the American Dog Derby.
She stopped mushing after that and instead became became heavily involved in soccer. She planned to play professionally in Sweden after graduating from college, but three days after she was recruited for the team, Otto said, she blew her knee out.
“That kind of opened the door to come back to the world of dogs,” she said. “And it’s really cool to be able to combine you know two lifelong passions — athletics and dogs — into one.”
Otto moved to Alaska in 2016 to work as a handler and learn about the sport. She moved home for a while to save up money and later returned to start working for King’s kennel, the Husky Homestead.
King’s kennel is a smaller operation than it once was, with 18 dogs making it to their Iditarod pool and 15 traveling to Anchorage, Otto said.
“We don’t really have an A team and a B team. It’s the only team we’ve got, and they’re great dogs,” she said.
With Otto racing the team, four-time Iditarod champion King had planned to sit out the race and work as part of the trail sweep crew. He’s undergone three surgeries in the last three years, and he said he wasn’t sure he’d be physically up for the 1,000-mile trek. An emergency surgery caused him to drop out of the 2020 Iditarod.
A week before the Iditarod began, Big Lake musher Nic Petit asked King to race his dog team after Petit tested positive for COVID-19.
“It’s his 30th Iditarod at the 50th anniversary, and selfishly, I’m kind of excited that he’ll be out there on the trail,” Otto said. “We traveled together a lot this year. So it’ll be fun even if I don’t see him, just to know that he’s out there.”
At the Rainy Pass checkpoint, about 142 miles from the start in Willow, Otto told Iditarod Insider that she was enjoying running the trail near King and doing “my first Iditarod with the boss man.”
“We’re definitely going back and forth, though,” she told Iditarod Insider, adding that she was eager to get King’s advice.
At 66 years old, King said before the race that he isn’t as spry or fit as he once was. This year, the pressure to win is off. He is hoping to pass the torch to Otto and said he wants to see her succeed.
“Now I feel the pressure to get there with style and show the world that the dogs aren’t doing this for Nic, they’re not doing it for me — they’re doing it because they love it,” he said.
And Otto’s goal for her first Iditarod?
“You know, my goal is to finish,” she said. “I think that’s kind of every rookie. I’m not going to lie, rookie of the year would be sweet, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to travel well with my dogs, and we’re going to take it one run at a time.”