Libby Riddles was the first woman to win an Iditarod - the year was 1985.

Riddles' win opens the door
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In 1985 nobody noticed as a woman, slight of frame, left Anchorage in the Iditarod. She was a nobody from somewhere. But when she was the first one to check into Safety - the last checkpoint before Nome - five hours ahead of the nearest competitor, everyone cheered in surprise. At 9 am on Wednesday, March 20th, Libby Riddles became the very first woman to ever win the Iditarod.

"I foresee running dogs for a long time. I'll probably have dogs my whole life."

Just before her 17th birthday Libby moved to Alaska. She lived right outside of Anchorage and later in a town called Nelchina. She loved all the dog races, and especially how the dogs seemed to love racing. She entered a small race in 1978, winning first place. Then she received a lead dog from Rick Swenson, a major Iditarod racer. After placing 18th in the 1980 Iditarod and 20th in the 1981 Iditarod, Libby decided she would have to breed her own dogs to get anywhere.

A short time later she moved to Shaktoolik, near Nome, where she worked as a fish buyer. There she started to train her dogs (and herself!) in the Arctic conditions. Not long after that she moved again, this time to Teller which is northwest of Nome. There she became partners with Joe Garnie and they bred and trained dogs together.

Joe and Libby took turns racing the dogs in the Iditarod. In 1984 Joe came in third place. Then Libby made her amazing race to come in first in 1985. Joe came in second in 1986. They really proved they had wonderful dogs!

Libby came in first against all odds. When she reached the Shaktoolik checkpoint she was in first and a howling windstorm was building. The person who was right behind her said something to the extent of "You're crazy! If it's anything like what I just came out of, it's impossible!". That made up Libby's mind, she headed out immediately.

Libby described the ordeal: "It was grim. I could not see from one trail marker to the next. I let my dogs go so far that I could barely see the marker behind me, because I didn't want to lose that sucker. When that was at the edge of my visibility, I'd put my snowhook in and walk up ahead of the dogs until I could see the next marker. And we repeated that process. It was very slow. For some idiot reason the dogs trusted that I knew what I was doing."

But she made it! She still races the Iditarod every once in a while, but she is exploring other kinds of racing more and more.

Riddles' win opens the door

Female mushers proved women can compete with men on a level playing field

Libby Riddles was the toast of Nome after her thrilling 1985 victory.

Over the final miles of the 1985 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, when it was clear she was going to win, Libby Riddles mushed past a tiny Eskimo woman.

The lady smiled at Riddles and said, ''Oh, you beat them guys.''

Yes, she did. And the Iditarod was never quite the same.

Nearly 12 years ago, Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod. Battling a vicious Bering Sea storm, she mushed into Iditarod legend when other contenders held back. Her victory ignited an explosion of sexist sentiment and sisterhood, and won a new national following for the wilderness race.

A T-shirt industry rushing to capitalize on the Libby phenomenon introduced to local lexicon such pithy sayings as, ''Alaska -- Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.''

''Libby did it at a time when women were assaulting the world,'' said former Iditarod Trail Committee president Leo Rasmussen, who considers Riddles' win one of the most important events in Iditarod history. ''When we were standing on Front Street after she won, I said, 'You don't know what you've stumbled into. You're the No. 1 woman in the world.'

''The shock waves of a woman doing what only men had done before brought attention to the Iditarod in a way it had never received.''What Riddles proved was that women could compete with and defeat men when conditions were equal, a rarity in the sports world. No handicaps. No special consideration. Men and women pitted against the elements, against each other. And a woman showed she was best.

At the time, Riddles was a little-known 28-year-old musher, and the victory changed her life. It gave her a title that can never be taken away and $50,000 in prize money. It made her famous across Alaska and, at least fleetingly, across the United States, and gave her entree to writing books, making speeches and working on Alaska movies as an advisor.

''It still feels pretty fresh,'' Riddles said recently. Now 40, she has relocated from the Western Alaska village of Teller to Knik in the Mat-Su Valley. ''I've got to pinch myself. It was a dream come true for me.''

Despite the furor, despite the glory attached to Riddles' name as a barrier breaker, by 1985 the triumph of a woman in the 1,100-mile race across the barren, rugged state was viewed as inevitable.

Not so in the beginning.

There were no women in the Iditarod when the race began in 1973. In 1974, Mary Shields and the late Lolly Medley, two Interior mushers, placed 23rd and 24th, with a half-hour separating them, to become the first women to complete the race.

Years later, Shields recalled that a male spectator along the Tudor Track fencing -- where the race then started -- hollered that she would never make it. Shields said that attitude stiffened her determination to finish. On the trail, too, she said, she felt other mushers didn't take her seriously because she was a woman.

At the time, there existed an ingrained perception among many that it took a rough, tough guy to succeed in the Iditarod. Shields' and Medley's pioneering performances were the first steps to set aside the myth.

Soon enough, by the end of the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, a handful of competitive, hard-driving women demonstrated it was not necessary to grow a beard to achieve Iditarod prominence.

The rise of women in the Iditarod was a steady, incremental process. Gradually, more women entered and, gradually, more women did well.In 1978, Susan Butcher made her first appearance in the top-20 money positions. In 1979, she cracked the top 10. By 1985, Butcher owned two runner-up finishes and it was widely assumed she would become the first woman victor. Instead, the year Riddles won, Butcher's team was stomped by a moose and she had to withdraw.

The setback only toughened Butcher's resolve, though, and soon her braided brown hair became as familiar to Alaskans as her lead dog Granite. Butcher won four times and fiinshed second between 1986 and 1990.

Butcher, 42, is now retired from the Iditarod and splitting her time between homes in Fairbanks and Eureka.

''I loved what I was doing,'' said Butcher. ''I loved my dogs. I also knew it was something I was going to excel at. I knew I was going to work my butt off. I guess I rose in about the order I expected. It was, 'Next year I'll be in the top 10. Next year I'll be in the top five.' ''

Butcher said she always considered herself a musher first and a woman second, and wished to be seen that way on the trail. Yet she said she eventually felt resented by the men.

''It wasn't till after my second or third win, that I thought about it,'' Butcher said recently. ''People said, 'Don't you have any idea what you've done? You've been butting your head on a fairly closed door.' When I raced in a group they very much let me know I was not really accepted. I was not as welcome at the campfire. There was a brotherhood, but no sisterhood.''

For several years, Butcher was the only female in the lead pack of males. She said she had friendships with many male mushers, including her arch-rival Rick Swenson, the five-time champion, but when the men worked together on the trail, she felt excluded.

''It was hard because I didn't have that pal out there,'' said Butcher.

That changed when DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow emerged as a top-10 racer and the women began working together breaking trail and plotting strategy.

''Finally, there was somebody completely open with me,'' said Butcher. ''We joined forces and shared information and the boys bitched about it. This is what was lacking before. Now you'd have two sets of eyes instead of one. We were taking turns helping each other down the trail and they hated that.''

Butcher did not just imagine the slights, recalled long-time Iditarod musher Jerry Austin of St. Michael.

Butcher was obviously ambitious and made no secret of her goals, said Austin, and ''it rubbed a few people the wrong way. I could see where there was an old-boy network for a few years.''

Whatever prejudice existed against women has disappeared, said Butcher, whose last race was 1994, but who has followed the race as a television commentator the last two winters.

''Oh God, yes, it's completely gone,'' said Butcher. ''You're just a musher out there now.''

Since Riddles' win and Butcher's ascension, women have made a more significant impact on the Iditarod. Donna Gentry and Sue Firmin recorded notable finishes as early as 1980, but there were five women in the top 20 in the 1993 race. That year, Jonrowe placed second, her best effort in eight top-10 finishes since 1988.

Peryll Kyzer, Kate Persons, Kathy Swenson and Claire Philip, all have produced in-the-money performances.

For a while women did so well that some 200-pound men suggested women might have an advantage because they are lighter and the teams had less weight to pull. A brief discussion of weight handicapping went nowhere.

Currently, Jonrowe, 43, is the pre-eminent woman mushing the Iditarod. She has been the most consistent, and with few exceptions, has been a race constant since 1980. It took her until 1988 to break into the top 10, but among the honors she has garnered since are the sportsmanship award, humanitarian award and most inspirational musher award.

As a beginner, Jonrowe said, she sensed no hostility. Rather, as a nervous rookie, she said, she never would have made it to Nome without the help of veterans Rudy Demoski and Don Honea.

''I was just so in over my head,'' Jonrowe said. ''I needed somebody to settle me down. They must have just felt sorry for me. They kind of adopted me.''

Yet despite the graciousness she encountered, Jonrowe said, it was a special moment for all female mushers when Riddles rode into Nome.''I remember feeling a real sense of pride in her,'' said Jonrowe. ''There were tears in my eyes. That it had happened for her and it had happened for all of us.''

Riddles' win expanded the possibilities. It showed fans, the world at-large and other women mushers that Butcher was not the only one who could expect to contend.

''Libby's win started it,'' said Jonrowe. ''Susan's reign cemented it. They showed it's possible for women to excel on an equal playing field. Libby's win captured the hearts of people who thought only an incredible mountain man could accomplish it.''

Riddles trains dogs for shorter races now. She said she still gets mail from young women -- and some boys, too -- who consider her a role model. They write for advice, ask how to get started mushing.

Despite the passage of time, Riddles still treasures the lesson of the victory in her own life.

''It's always something that will be a part of me,'' Riddles said. ''Just realizing what I was capable of, going out and doing something I set my mind to. That's the gift I got out of it.''

All because she beat the men.
Source: Lew Freedman,

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