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Unquestionable drive

Rachael Scdoris is set to become the Iditarod's first blind competitor - and also one of its youngest

by: TIM STUMM/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Come this March, Rachael Scdoris will become one the yougest mushers to compete in the Iditarod.

As the auditorium crowd of Standard Insurance employees shift uncomfortably in their seats, sleddog racer Jerry Scdoris's mind drifts elsewhere.
   Up at the podium, Greg Ness, senior vice president of employee benefits, is divulging his visions and expectations for the next fiscal year.
   It is an important message, and Ness's engaging personality communicates it well, but Jerry has a hard time focusing on anything but the evening's next act.
   Which happens to be his daughter.
   "Her motivation is so strong right now," he marvels to himself. "I just wonder how it will all develop."
   In a moment Rachael Scdoris will command the attention of the entire room.
   Her story of courage and determination while qualifying for the famous Iditarod sleddog race will leave the audience awed.
   She will go on, with her descriptions of the ignorance and prejudices she encountered along the way, to touch their hearts.
   For the time being, however, Rachael is alone in her father's head - the one person who has watched her go through it all.
   ***
   At the age of 19, Rachael has accomplished more than most hope to achieve in a lifetime. Although she would be legally unable to take a celebratory sip of champagne in the winner's circle, Rachael is on the brink of approaching her pastime's ultimate feat. In just a few short months she and a team of 12 highly-trained dogs will line up at the starting gates of the legendary Iditarod trail. Stretching 1,200 miles across the barren Alaskan wilderness, it is appropriately referred to by enthusiasts and fans alike, as "The Last Great Race on Earth."
   For Rachael, it is most likely the start of things to come. But for an aging father who never thought his daughter would match - let alone surpass - his passion for the sport of sleddog racing, it in many ways marks an end.
   "When Rachael was a little girl if someone would have told me that she would work this hard to make her dream a reality, I wouldn't have believed them." Jerry says. "I didn't know anyone was willing to work as hard as she has worked."
   The race will culminate years of preparation and struggle. Though their journey was never predicated on revenge, it will be a final 'I told you so,' to the countless naysayers who said it could not be done.
   It is an end that Jerry thinks about in part because he so vividly remembers the beginning.
   Jerry clearly recalls that beautiful blond-haired baby who burst into the world weighing a full 10.5 pounds and measuring 24 inches long. At the time, she was the largest girl to have ever been born at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend.
   He remembers initially knowing something was not quite right with his blue-eyed girl and the anger he would develop when doctors would tell him otherwise.
   He remembers how this anger turned to rage when a physician finally did confirm what he had known all along.
   That Rachael was legally blind.
   The words still echo in Jerry's ears. It was what he had suspected all along, but for some reason reality always hits hard. His only daughter, who seemed unable to focus on any source of sound, was not just in a stage of development as every doctor before this had wanted to believe - she actually could not see where the noise was coming from.
   ***
   Three years after the fateful news, Jerry and Rachael's mom split up and Jerry became Rachael's primary caretaker.
   Jerry wanted more than anything for his daughter to live a normal life and though he was not exactly sure what this meant, he was initially certain that it did not involve sled dogs.
   Jerry moved to Bend and became a furniture salesman. He disliked his job and missed the solitude of living out in the country, but it was what was best, he assumed, for his school age daughter.
   Eventually, however, the pull became too strong. Jerry bought 20 new dogs to replace the ones he had sold when he and his daughter relocated to town and started a sleddog tour business up by Mt. Bachelor.
   Rachael went with him on most of his rides, but Jerry never envisioned the extent of her involvement expanding much larger.
   Then one day he let her take a ride by herself.
   It was only a one-mile trail, completely closed off, but it was a triumphant starting point for what was to come.
   A beginning Jerry had difficulty initially grasping.
   "I couldn't help it, I ran after," he recalls. "I think I ran that mile in about six inches of snow in probably about 5:30 ...And I can't run a 5:30 mile. Especially with my boots on and in six inches of snow."
   Eventually, Jerry's mind set switched from panic mode to acceptance. His only daughter had fallen victim to the powerful addiction of sleddog racing. Whether her father liked it or not.
   "What was being created in that mile didn't occur to me," he said. "I had no idea that it was the first mile of tens of thousands of miles which would lead to the starting line of the 2005 Iditarod. I really didn't."
   Rachael was in fifth grade at the time and two years later she would compete in her first competition, the Frog Lake Race near Mount Hood. Racing in the novice division she finished a respectable fourth place.
   Rachael ended the first day of the two-day event in third and was charging her way towards the lead on the second day when she started to have problems with her dogs. She was a little disappointed she did not place better but was happy to have finally finished a race.
   Her competitive spirit had been born.
   ***
   "A perfect ride is a flawless ride," says Rachael as a team of 12 dogs pull her through central Oregon's Badlands. "No problems at all. Just go go go. Everyone pulls, no one gets hurt."
   It is early December and although the team is usually up on the mountain practicing in snow, today they are pulling an all-terrain vehicle over dirt trails. It has been a mild winter in the area and so for the time being training is limited to this dry land format.
   The team has been doing this five times a week since August 26th. The 30 to 50 mile rides provide little benefit for the rider, but for the dogs it is an essential part of the stamina building process. Once they get onto the snow - a moment Rachael eagerly awaits - the rides will be more even-handed. The dogs will finally be able to let loose and the rider will no longer have a motorized contraption to control their speed.
   Suddenly, Rachael brings the all-terrain vehicle to a halt. She jumps off and jogs towards the line of dogs in front of her.
   One of her huskies has become tangled in the rope and, as a result, is slowing down the whole team.
   Rachael pushes the wayward dog back to his own side and then hops back on the vehicle to resume her ride.
   "I mean, look at these guys, they are so cute," she continues, barely skipping a beat. "Some mornings when I wake up, I wonder (Why am I doing this, this is ridiculous, I want to stay in bed.) But once the dogs sense it's time to go, it's kind of like O.K., now I remember. They are just so happy."
   The team that is pulling her will be the one that will guide her through Alaska's backcountry. She will spend several nights alone with the dogs, braving temperatures that often times fall well into the negative double digits.
   Rachael's main detractors, and there have been several, claim that because of her disability she is unfit to care for her dogs. They argue that the dogs are not safe under her guidance, especially in conditions as extreme as Alaska.
   Others point to her use of a spotter as an unfair advantage. In most races, Rachael has a snowmobile traverse the track ahead for her. He/she will then communicate with Rachael, via walkie talkie, about unexpected dips or curves that could throw her team off.
   In the Iditarod, she will have a completely different team of 12 dogs and a rider following her. It is a condition Rachael has accepted but sees, if anything, as a disadvantage.
   "I really prefer the (snowmobile) format, just because then I am running my own schedule," she said. "I don't have to slow my dogs to wait or do I have to really push them."
   As far as injuries to dogs, they have been few and far between.
   "The worst thing we've had this year, in over 1,000 miles of training, is a cut foot," she boasts.
   Rachael has accepted the fact that for whatever reason some people don't want to see her race. Be it ignorance or even fear (that her accomplishment may somehow discredit theirs) she has made it a priority to not let the criticism affect her.
   "I used to be pretty offended by it, but now I just think that they are entitled to their opinion and can think what they want," she says. "I'm going to do it anyway and prove them wrong. So why do I care what they think."
   ***
   Rachael will compete in two events before the Iditarod in March. At the end of January she will take part in Tustumena 200 in Alaska and in a couple weeks is the Atta Boy, right here in central Oregon. Her father, Jerry, is the founder and director of the race and in four years has developed it into one of the most prestigious mushing events in the world.
   This year it will serve as the mid-distance world championships. The International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) rotates its championship courses annually and this year picked the Atta Boy because of its varied terrain and appealing seven stage format.
   "Only the best come to the Atta Boy. The Atta Boy isn't the Iditarod in recognition, but within the mushing community the Atta Boy is probably second to the Iditarod," says Jerry.
   In the meantime, Rachael is enjoying the celebrity status her story has created - even if at times she doesn't understand it.
   "Honestly I don't think what I'm doing is that spectacular," she modestly states. "I'm just out playing with my dogs and I just happen to get a lot of attention for doing it."
   Today's ride will be cut short so Rachael can prepare for a phone interview with Elle magazine this afternoon. The week before Outside magazine was in town to do a photo shoot and next week she will fly to New York city to be actress Emmy Rossum's special guest at the movie premiere of Phantom of the Opera. Rossum is considering playing Scdoris in an upcoming movie based on the Alfalfa, Ore. resident's life. The script is still very much in the works, but the actress is a part of a growing legion who have been drawn to Rachael's story.
   "I love the fact that Rachael has worked so hard and is getting noticed for it," said Jerry. "[She] gets to make trips to New York City and get all made up for Outside magazine. I love the fact that she's getting recognized for being kind of a pioneer."
   Earlier in the week Rachael was in Portland as the guest of honor at Standard Insurance's annual employee meeting. Standard, along with Atta Boy, serve as Rachael's two main sponsors.
   Rachael was there to talk about, among other things, the Iditarod. As the race draws closer, her thoughts on the marathon challenge have wavered.
   She is confident she will stay in the sport of sleddog racing for as long as she can, but in what form or manner she will do so, she is uncertain.
   "My goals have always changed for the Iditarod. First I wanted to win my rookie year, and then I realized that that's probably not going to happen. It's just kind of gone back and forth," she said. "Now I am really not thinking about that. I'm just going to get the team ready and go run the race. If I like it I will do it again and if I think this isn't my style of racing, I'll just take what I learned from it and do another style of race."
   Meanwhile, back in his auditorium chair, Jerry ponders his initial thought, wondering what is next.
   He envisions the seemingly limitless possibilities open to his driven daughter and realizes he is as unclear about the outcome as anybody else.
   "She's intrinsically motivated. She's got that motivation that only those people know about," he says. "I just don't have an answer."