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Blind musher doggedly pursues goal

Iditarod board bends rules, lets Central Oregon teen enter race

ALFALFA ÑSome girls grow up playing with dolls. Rachael Scdoris grew up playing with dogs. Born to a father who was a professional musher, she took her first sled dog rides at age 3.

'It was very relaxing,' she recalls. 'I always fell asleep.'

Soon, riding was no longer enough.

'I was about 8 when I starting saying I wanted to run the dogs,' Rachael says. 'Dad would say no. The next day, I'd say, 'I want to run the dogs!' '

Finally, Jerry Scdoris relented and let Rachael lead two of his oldest dogs, both Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veterans, on a 1-mile loop used for children's sled dog tours.

'As soon she took off, I thought to myself: 'What have I done?'' says Jerry, who began chasing after his daughter on foot through 6 inches of snow.

The elder Scdoris had good reason to worry, and not just because of his daughter's age. Rachael is legally blind. The Central Oregon girl was born with achromatopsia, a rare genetic disease that makes her nearsighted, farsighted and colorblind.

'I nearly had a heart attack chasing her around that loop,' her father remembers. 'But when she came back, she was thrilled.'

'It was exciting,' Rachael says. 'I felt like a real musher.'

In the months that followed, Rachael led her dogs on that 1-mile loop, day after day. At age 11, she entered her first sled dog race. The next year, she earned her first victory. At 15, she completed the Wyoming Stage Stop race, becoming the youngest musher ever to finish a 500-mile race.

'At that point, there was a real shift in her thinking,' says Jerry, who lives about 20 miles northeast of Bend. 'She became a sled dog racer.'

Now Rachael, 18, has set her sights on sled dog racing's ultimate test, the Iditarod.

Racing ambition

First run in 1973, the event dubbed 'The Last Great Race' travels 1,100 miles, often through subzero temperatures and whiteout conditions, from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The Iditarod commemorates a lifesaving journey made in 1925 when teams of sled dogs were used to relay antitoxin serum to save the children of Nome from a diphtheria outbreak. The race typically takes 10 to 17 days to complete.

'The Iditarod has always been my dream,' she says. 'I want to be the third woman to win the Iditarod.'

She knew about the difficulty of the race from the stories her father's friends shared about their own Iditarod experiences. What she never expected was how hard she'd have to fight to be allowed to compete.

In sled dog races, Rachael needs a 'visual interpreter,' a spotter to be her eyes and alert her to hazards along the route. On June 6, the day after she graduated from Redmond High School, the Iditarod Trail Committee met to review her request for a spotter. At the meeting, several mushers Ñ including five-time champion Rick Swenson Ñ spoke out against providing any such accommodation.

'She can sign up under the same rules as the rest of us,' Swenson argued at the time, saying he, too, has vision problems. 'If I lost my glasses on the trail, I'm in the same position as her,' he said. 'My eyes are worse than hers.'

'He's got the luxury of glasses,' Rachael countered. 'His glasses are his accommodation. If I could do that, I wouldn't need an accommodation.'

'It was hard not to be hurt by some of the things people said,' Jerry says. 'I wish I could have handled it as well as she did.'

The committee voted to table her request, effectively blocking her from the race.

But, instead of giving up, she kept fighting.

'All my life,' she says, 'whenever somebody has said, 'You can't,' I've always thought, 'Oh, yeah?' '

The same competitive spirit enabled her to letter in track and cross country at Redmond High, following in the footsteps of her hero, Marla Runyan, the blind elite distance runner from Eugene.

Try again

Rachael went back to the committee, flying to Alaska to make her case in person at a meeting Sept. 19. To her, it was important that she face the board alone, without her father.

'A lot of the criticism was, 'It's just her dad, he's pushing her,' ' she says. 'Also, he does what dads tend to do Ñ people ask me a question and he answers.'

She took the empty seat in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped table, surrounded by the committee, and fielded questions during a three-hour session.

'I kept telling myself, 'Don't play with your hair,' ' she recalls.

Her message to the board was simple: 'I'm not trying to hurt the Iditarod. I just want to run the race. I'm a sled dog racer.'

After meeting behind closed doors for three more hours, the committee announced it would grant a modified accommodation. Rachael would be permitted a visual interpreter who would ride on an extra sled team. The compromise meant a doubling of costs for the Scdoris family Ñor another $35,000 Ñand an entire extra sled dog team not only at the Iditarod but at the required qualifying races as well.

Still, the decision was a victory, as it cleared the way for Rachael to fulfill her dream of competing in the Iditarod.

Ninety-one mushers have signed up for the 2004 race, which begins March 6 in Anchorage. Rachael already has paid her entry fee.

These days, she rises at 5:30 a.m. to train. By 7:30 a.m., she's already mushed 30 miles on the trails with her dogs. Then she totes giant bags of food, draws water, cleans up after her team and hits the trails for another 30 miles.

This not-so-glamorous routine contrasts sharply with the reception Rachael gets at races and during visits to schools, where she's surrounded by fans and young girls inspired by her accomplishments.

'I look at it one of two ways,' she says. 'Either there's no such thing as a disability, only the limits you place on yourself, or, every one of us has a disability of some kind Ñ at least one.'