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Blind Iditarod veteran weighs mushing dreams against running for office

  • Author: Samantha Swindler, The Oregonian
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 2, 2017

REDMOND, Oregon — Rachael Scdoris-Salerno is a four-time competitor in Alaska's famed 1,000-mile Iditarod dog sled race and a legally blind Paralympic tandem cyclist.

But when she filed to run as a Democrat for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden's congressional seat, which is up in 2018, friends told her she'd be in for the fight of her life.

"I've kind of been warned out here, not in a negative way, just… 'What are you thinking, politics are nasty,'" she said. "But then, someone saying 'Y-O-U-R a dumb liberal' is not nearly as intimidating as a 50-mile-an-hour headwind on the Yukon River."

Scdoris, 32, her husband, Nick Salerno, and their 2-year-old son, Julien, live on 40 remote acres outside Redmond. There, they care for more than 100 Alaskan huskies and run their business, Oregon Trail of Dreams, which offers sled dog tours around Mount Bachelor.

The family lives off the grid, but even the most ruggedly self-sufficient person relies on some government help. Walden's push to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and its direct impact on her as a person with a pre-existing condition — inspired her jump into politics.

"There's no such thing as a self-made or completely individual person," she said.

"Everybody gets to where they are through support, one way or another, and health care is something that I can't do on my own. I can take care of 100 dogs, I can run a successful tour business … but I can't do health care."

Scdoris has congenital achromatopsia, a genetic disorder that severely limits her vision. In her 2005 book "No End in Sight: My Life as a Blind Iditarod Racer," she wrote that "in a clinical setting with controlled lighting, my vision is about 20/200. But when light conditions change, my vision rapidly deteriorates. Doctors estimate my walk-around vision varies between 20/300 and 20/600."

Iditarod musher Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Oregon, is surrounded by media as she unloads her sled at the Skwentna checkpoint in the 2005 race. (Jim Lavrakas / Alaska Dispatch News archive)

Because of her condition, she had trouble getting insurance both as a child and a young adult. She remembered her first experience attempting to get her own health insurance around age 24. The agent offered her a basic plan for about $110 a month.

"So then he went through all the questions and of course, 'Do you have a disability?' Well, yes, I'm visually impaired," she said. "The next (plan) he could get me was over $300 and he said they wouldn't mind my situation, but it would be three times as expensive."

But then, Obamacare has its problems, too, and health insurance is still expensive for Scdoris and her family. Rather than the Republican direction, she wants to see the U.S. move toward universal health care coverage.

Scdoris recognizes that kind of policy pitch might be unpopular in the conservative 2nd District, but she says can find common ground with her farm and ranch neighbors.

She grew up around her father's sled dogs and began competing in dog races around age 11. She turned 16 during the 500-mile International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race in 2001, becoming the youngest musher to ever complete a race that long.

During her first Iditarod in 2005, Scdoris scratched after about 750 miles when several of her dogs caught a virus. She returned in 2006 and finished the race in 57th place. She ran her four Iditarods with the help of a "visual interpreter" who ran ahead of her team and relayed back to her about conditions.

She and her husband formally took over the family dog sled business from her father last year.

"This congressional seat is the first job I've ever had to actually apply for," she said.

Scdoris hasn't fully committed to running in 2018. She said she'd love to get back to another Iditarod, and a campaign would mean holding off on racing dreams.

Julien also is a big factor in whether she will go forward in the campaign.

"Part of me says yes, for his future, it is the right thing to do. I want him to have a good country to grow up in," she said. "On the other hand, another part of me is saying, for his present, this might not be the best thing."

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