Monday, February 20, 2006

Customized Employment in Alaska's Iditarod

On March 4th, 83 registered “mushers” will line up for the start of the 34th Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. The Iditarod is one of the most famous Dog Sled Races in the world spanning 1,112 miles of rugged terrain between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. In less than a two week period, one determined musher and team of trained dogs will brave the harsh winter elements to claim the first place prize.

Known as the “Last Great Race,” the Iditarod demands that dog sled teams endure brutally cold sub-zero temperatures and gale force winter winds that can dip air temperatures to as low as -100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is common for Iditarod mushers to experience white-out blizzards with zero-to-low visibility and extreme exhaustion from sleepless nights and physical rigors of the trek. The Iditarod is a symbolic racing event that celebrates the early settlement of Alaska including its dog sledding legacy and pioneering spirit as “America’s Last Frontier.”

I have been resident of the State of Minnesota for the last 33 years. For this reason, I am very well acquainted with sub-zero temperatures and nasty winter conditions such as white-out blizzards. However, if the truth be told, our winters in the Twin Cities pale in comparison to the brutal conditions these courageous mushers will endure on the Iditarod Trail. In sum, I have great respect for anyone (dogs included) having the courage, survival skills, and physical conditioning that is required to take this arduous journey.

Recently, I was made aware of the entry of a legally blind athlete in this year’s running of the 34th Iditarod. Rachael Scdoris, a 21 year-old athlete from Bend, Oregon, is registered to participate and will be among the 54 mushers at the starting line in downtown Anchorage. Can you fathom leading a team of dogs over a terrain of frozen tundra, spruce forests, rivers, and rugged mountains in a sparsely populated region of Alaska and without the benefit of sight? How about navigating a dog team for two weeks over a 1,112 mile course in brutally cold weather and without the comforts we are normally accustomed to?

Yes, I know. This sounds completely illogical and almost counterintuitive to Scdoris’ innate physical capacities. So how is this possible?

Well, Rachael Scdoris fully understands about the power of dreams. Also, she recognizes the importance of training and preparation she and her dogs need to be ready and compete effectively. Finally, and most importantly, Scdoris fully understands the power of planning customized strategies to maximize her abilities and achieve a defined career goal.

First, a little background about Scdoris. She was born on February 1, 1985 with a rare disease called congenital achromatopsia. This childhood disease resulted in serious vision loss including nearsightedness, farsightedness, and color blindness. Rachael’s visual acuity is 20/200 and she is legally blind. Also, she is extremely light sensitive and requires proper protection.

The doctors did not offer Scdoris’ family much hope for a typical childhood or independence for Rachael. Regardless, no medical prognosis was about to discourage a young Rachael Scdoris from blazing her own trail. She defied naysayers by choosing a career focus within the arena of sports and athletics. She participated in track and field events during high school and became captain of her team. Also, Rachael remained true to her first love--dog sledding. She was already learning to dog sled with guided assistance from her Dad at the tender age of three.

In Rachael’s own words: I’ve never let my disability define or limit me.” No kidding!! She began mushing (dog sledding) in 1996 and was driving her own dog teams solo by the age of 12. In 2001, Rachael became the youngest as well as first blind athlete, to finish a 500 mile dog sled race in the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race at age 16. With signature skill sets and clear instincts for mushing, Rachael Scdoris was starting to turn heads.

In 2003, she made her first bid to register for Alaska’s Iditarod but was flatly turned down by the Trail Committee’s Board of Directors due to special accommodations she needs to compete in the race safely. In 2004, Scdoris’ application to the Racing Board was turned down yet a second time. Rachael is not one who is easily discouraged, however, and she would not be denied. The young musher took a flight to Alaska to personally petition the Iditarod Trail’s Racing Board about her application to compete. She educated the committee about her goals, skills, and why a reasonable accommodation would help her to participate and compete safely in the event. After completing this face-to-face meeting, the Board voted unanimously to allow Rachael to race with the guided assistance of a radio-enabled visual interpreter!

This action meant that Rachael could rely on guided support from a musher running ahead of her with a second team of dogs. By using radio communications, Rachael is able to digest critical information about upcoming terrain that she is unable to see. To illustrate, it is important to grasp details about an impending sharp turn ahead or to receive warnings about low hanging tree branches that may pose danger to Rachael and her dog team. The information relayed allows Rachael to react and lead her dog team with a higher degree of personal safety.

With approval of the Iditarod Racing Board behind her, Scdoris still had to qualify for the race by performing successfully in a number of grueling warm up events. In 2004, Scdoris entered and successfully competed in two qualifying races demanding athletic skill, endurance, and discernment. She finished eleventh in the field for the 300 mile Race for the Sky competition in Montana. Also, she led her dog sled team to a fourth place finish in the 400 mile John Beargrease Mid-Distance Marathon in my home State of Minnesota.

In 2005, Scdoris and her dog team trained hard for their greatest career test–The Iditarod! And Rachael was the first blind athlete to compete in this racing event. After completing a 700 mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness, however, Rachael’s childhood dream was dashed by misfortune. Sadly, she was forced to discontinue the race due to a virus contracted by several of her dogs along the trail. Slowed, but by no means defeated, Scdoris immediately made plans for her comeback. She registered to compete in the 34th Iditarod that will be run soon on March 4, 2006!

In preparation for this year’s racing event, Rachael began training with a new visual interpreter named Tim Osmar. Osmar is an experienced musher and veteran of the Iditarod race. He is a registered entrant in this year's race and will serve as Scdoris’ visual interpreter. Osmar will guide Rachael’s decision-making and movements by initiating two-way radio communications with her on the trail. Osmar and Scdoris have already raced together in a qualifying event to better prepare for the challenges the two will encounter on the Iditarod Trail.

Scdoris is being sponsored in this year's race by the Standard Insurance Company. She is teaming up with this lead corporate sponsor and the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) to raise money and public awareness in support of athletes with visual disabilities. An active member of the USABA, Scdoris is dedicated to increasing the number and quality of athletic opportunities available to Americans who are blind or live with significant vision loss. This partnership enables Scdoris to contribute in a direct and meaningful way.

Rachael is hoping to attract individual donors to pledge money in support of her cause. According the Scdoris: “The Standard Insurance Company will match the first $50,000 in donations and pledges dollar for dollar. Please consider making a donation -- as little as one penny per mile of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- will enable other athletes like me to see the possibilities and realize their full potential.”

Disability accommodations are now being honored in competitive sports?! And customized support strategies are being used in the running of this year’s Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race?! Wow, what a remarkable story!

We owe a debt of gratitude to Scdoris for bringing national attention to this simple idea that her abilities do indeed matter. Further, it is incredible that a 21 year old is casting a bright spotlight on another simple fact. That is, being “qualified” as someone with a disability often means a willingness to look at standards from a completely new perspective and with customized accommodations and support.

Rachael Scdoris may have some rough sledding ahead, but everyone had better watch out because she is coming on strong no matter what the climate may bring. Hey Rachael, you go girl!

If you are interested in contributing to Rachael’s Fundraising Campaign and following her progress during the two week Iditarod trek, you can visit her web site at


Blogger Don Lavin said...

I have been following Rachael Scdoris' progress in the Iditarod. She has made it through the second check point at Swentna and is running strong! She has advanced from the 42nd position to the 16th spot as of 3-06-06 at 6:30 am Alaska Standard Time. Rachael still has all 16 dogs and her web site indicates that only one rookie is running ahead of her at this time. Wonderful news!

5:57 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

According to today's report, Rachael is now only 445 miles from Nome! She and her dog team have been enduring -35 degree temps and 11 mushers have already had to leave the race to injuries to themselves or health issues concerning their dogs. Yikes!

Minnesota's snowstorm today isn't looking so bad!

4:52 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Today is March 15 and Rachael has now been on the trail for 11 days. She and her visual interpreter Tim Osmar reached the coastal city of Unalakleet today after more than 15 hours and five minutes on the trail since the last checkpoint. Rachael is now only 261 miles from Nome!

3:41 PM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Today is March 18th and this is taken directly from Rachael Scdoris' Web Site set up by Standard Insurance Company, Rachael's sponsor for the Iditarod.

"At 1:42 AM Alaska Standard Time, on Saturday, March 18th, Rachael Scdoris became the first legally blind athlete to complete the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. After 12 days, 10 hours and 42 minutes on the trail, Rachael and her visual interpreter, Tim Osmar, passed underneath the wooden structure, known as the Burled Arch, that marks the finish line. The duo finished in 56th and 57th place, and Rachael finished 7th out of the 20 rookies who started the race.

Having endured temperatures as low as -52 degrees Fahrenheit and wind speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour, Rachael took the worst that the 1,100 miles of Alaskan wilderness had to throw at her and kept on mushing. We salute the determination and skill that it took for Rachael to achieve her dream. Way to go Rachael!"

11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rachael is a true star, I hope they make a movie about this young beauty. What an amazing athlete, role model, and dog lover!

3:05 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home