Heart of a Champion

One of my favorite things about the Iditarod is the stories of the mushers and why they choose to brave the tough weather conditions and terrain of the Iditarod Trail.  For the large majority of mushers, running the Iditarod has nothing to do with winning and is a whole lot more about a cause so much bigger than becoming the Champion.  Here are a few of their stories.

Photo from reachingbeyondtheclouds.com

Cindy Abbott
After months of feeling sick, Cindy was diagnosed with a rare disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis (WG).  This rare disease is incurable and could be life-threatening.  A true adventurer at heart, Cindy was in the process of training to climb Mt. Everest when she found out that she had WG.  If you look up the definition of perseverant in the dictionary, the definition should be Cindy Abbott.  Although she was suffering from side effects of her disease and became functionally blind in one eye, Cindy pushed on and completed her training to climb Everest.  On May 23, 2010, Cindy made it to the top of Everest, proudly holding a banner for the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). 

Cindy Abbott lined up for the Ceremonial Start of the 2019 Iditarod.

Cindy didn’t stop with Everest.  When she came back, she decided to tackle the challenge of running the Iditarod to continue raising awareness for NORD.  Cindy has completed the Iditarod twice, earning the Red Lantern in both races.  She is currently on her final run in the 2019 race before retiring to get back to adventures with her husband. Cindy is the only female ever to both summit Mt. Everest and finish the Iditarod, both after the age of 50.

It would have been very easy for Cindy to give up, but she is a woman who has zero quit in her.  Her motto for climbing Everest and completing the Iditarod has been to “take it 10 feet at a time”.  Her ultimate goal is to cross the finish line in her own time. 

Brett at the Ceremonial Start, with Spencer driving his tag sled.

Brett Bruggeman/
Spencer Bruggeman
Brett’s youngest son Spencer was born with a birth defect causing one leg to not develop muscle, causing one leg to be shorter and skinnier than the other.  Although the family had traditionally been a football family, Spencer was forced to quit playing at about 10 years old.  He wanted to remain competitive and continue participating in sports that would be less dependent on both legs.  He became interested in dog sledding at the same time Brett was also interested in mushing.  Eventually, the family started their own kennel, Skinny Leg Sled Dogs, to honor Spencer’s leg.

Brett and his team at the Official Restart, ready to trek across Alaska to Nome.

Brett’s family embraced the idea, after some convincing of Brett’s wife, and they jumped right into the mushing world.  Brett runs the Iditarod as a way to honor and inspire Spencer.  Spencer hasn’t let his skinny leg stop him from being competitive.  He has done some races alongside his dad and a few on his own, and he has finished strong each time.  I wonder, will we see Spencer’s name signed up for the Iditarod some day?

Charley’s team ready to go at the Official Restart.

Charley Bejna
Charley first became interested in the Iditarod when he was a spectator at the Junior Iditarod in 2006.  From then on, he immersed himself in mushing.  He owns his own sled dog team in Knik, Alaska, although he resides in Illinois for half the year. 

Charley is a Type 1 diabetic and is dependent on an insulin pump.  Although Charley has what others may see as a challenge, he pushes through and finds a way to run this great race.  Managing his diabetes on a daily basis is quite the challenge, but he wants to inspire other diabetics that they can continue living a normal life, too.  As long as you take care of your health, a diabetic can do anything if they set their mind to it.

This is Charley’s seventh year running the Iditarod.

Photo from soldiersystems.net

Rick Casillo
Although Rick has competed in the Iditarod nine times, his main goal is to help bring awareness to United States Veterans suffering from PTSD.  Each day, 22 U.S. Veterans take their own lives because of the effects of war battle.  It’s Rick’s mission to save the lives of these people who risked their own life to ensure our freedoms.

Photo from Alaska Coast Magazine

 Rick has an organization, Battle Dawgs, with the mission of helping these warriors suffering from PTSD.  Rick and his Battle Dawgs team provide healing and exhilarating experiences in Alaska.  Some of these adventures include fly fishing, hiking glaciers, and assisting in dog training.  Battle Dawgs also works to bring awareness to warriors suffering from PTSD and that number 22, hoping to help save lives.

Pushing through life’s obstacles makes each and every one of these mushers such an inspiration.  When the tough gets going, they don’t quit.  Instead, they pull on their snow pants and mukluks and challenge themselves to push for their dreams, even when it’s not the easy trail to take. 

Even though many of these mushers may never win the Iditarod, they have the true heart of a champion, and that’s what matters more than anything else.   

These stories are great segues into Social/Emotional Curriculum.  They are great for encouraging students to push on, no matter how tough life gets.  Even if you finish last, you still finished, and that’s what matters most.

Reflection:  Who is someone that inspires you?  Why does this person inspire you?  How does this person challenge you to grow and become a better person?

In honor of a fabulous team of 52 mushers out on the trail at this very moment, take a few moments in class to play, Name That Musher.  Have fun!