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Dog musher Aliy Zirkle.

THIS second to the last of my featured 'Netflix Losers Documentary' series athletes is many-time dogsled race contender Aliy Zirkle.

Zirkle is a champion of dogsled racing and a champion of caring for her dogs. According to a dogsled web site, 'Aliy Zirkle moved to Bettles, Alaska, at age twenty and began mushing due to the remote nature of the town. She adopted six sled dogs began learning how to race and train dogs.'

The Daily Pennsylvanian says, 'A 1992 Penn graduate, Aliy Zirkle may not be a household name here in Philadelphia, but in Alaska, where she currently resides, Zirkle is a mushing celebrity.'

Mushing, better known as dogsled racing, is a sport famous for grueling distance races. Teams of anywhere from eight to 14 trained sled dogs run for thousands of miles through the icy Alaskan terrain. The Iditarod, or as Zirkle refers to it, the 'Super Bowl of dogsled racing,' kicks off every year on the first Saturday of March. For mushers brave enough to take on the challenge, the 1000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome can take anywhere from eight days to just short of two weeks.'

An alumna of the University of Pennsylvania, Zirkle is a former multisport athlete playing volleyball and competing in athletics, namely the hammer throw, where in the Olympic trials she almost qualified. Zirkle owns, manages and operates SP Kennel, where she houses and cares for 50 of her dogs.

Zirkle is a decorated musher as evidenced by 'various awards throughout her mushing career, some of which were awarded to her by her fellow mushers. These awards include the Yukon Quest Challenge of the North award, given to the musher who 'most exemplifies the spirit of the Yukon Quest, a spirit that compels one to challenge the country and win,' and the Iditarod Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for exemplary care of her dogs.

She is recognized by both her peers and competitors inside and outside the races. She treats her dogs like their athletes, her athletes.

The Daily Pennsylvanian continues: 'Even crossing the finish line of such a trying race is a huge accomplishment. Every year, only around 30 teams of dogs and mushers are able to complete the race, with many teams inevitably dropping out along the way. Zirkle boasts a career of impressive results, including three consecutive second-place finishes from 2012 to 2014 alongside three other top-10 finishes.

This past week, she finished her 18th Iditarod, placing fourth after holding the lead for a large portion of the early race. She eventually was overtaken by three other teams, including young gun Peter Kaiser, who ultimately secured his first career win.

Because of the variety of factors that can affect the race progression, including weather and injuries and fatigue to the dog team, a key component of the sport is strategy. Part of the skill is choosing when to rest and recover the team. If the Iditarod is indeed the Super Bowl, mushers have the challenge of choosing when to take a mandatory halftime.

It was with this decision that Zirkle attempted to get a leg up on her competition in this year's race, choosing to delay her halftime in hopes of getting ahead of weather that she anticipated would hit the other mushers who had stopped earlier.'

There are a lot of factors to consider in dogsled racing-the health of your dogs, weather, when to rest and recover. It is a test of man and animal's partnership.

According to Zirkle, 'I pushed ahead and most of my competitors stayed behind, and I was gambling on the fact that snow was going to fall behind me, but it fell on top of me. So it ended up slowing me down instead of slowing them,' Zirkle said. 'It was a bit of a gamble, but I needed to do that in order to really try to win this year. You can just continue to do the status quo year after year, but then you're going to continue to come in second, third, fourth, fifth. This was the one time I was like, 'to heck with it, I'm going for it'.'

There are a lot of risks in mushing, both calculated and uncalculated. Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong and can go wrong in dog sled racing. There's lots of tangibles and intangibles, circumstances that are beyond your control.

The Daily Pennsylvania's Jess Mixon writes, 'Zirkle is the only woman to have ever won the Yukon Quest, an arguably more grueling 1000-mile dogsled race. Kicking off every year in the heart of winter, the race is known for remarkably difficult weather conditions. There are only three people who have ever won the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, and Zirkle would be the first woman to accomplish the feat.

'In a sport extremely dependent on the speed of the dogs, not everyone shares Zirkle's same concern for their well-being. She has won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award four times, given to a musher every year in the Iditarod that prioritizes dog care while embodying the competitive spirit of racing.

'She regards her dogs as athletes and has devoted her life to raising and taking care of the over 50 dogs that she and her husband, fellow musher Allen Moore, house at SP Kennel.'

Zirkle adds, 'Dogs are both easier and more sensitive than people. They are easier because they always push themselves. In humans we have this mental hurdle that we sometimes have to get past, whereas dogs don't have that. But that's where you as a coach come in and have to say when to take it easy. You really have this bond with your team that surpasses just telling them what to do. It's a dog-human relationship. As a coach you have to be the strong one.'

Aliy went through one of the biggest adversities and challenges in her life when she and her dogs were stalked and hit by a drunken man on a snowmobile. 'During her 2016 Iditarod, Zirkle and her dogs were attacked by a drunk man who repeatedly tried to hit her and her team with his snowmobile. They survived and continued on with the race, despite incurring injuries to some of the team.'

The mushing or dogsled racing community in Alaska is a small community of competitors, but these competitors watch out for each other when they race. They don't try to put each other down, and nobody tries to cheat by injecting their dogs with steroids or PEDs.

In the documentary, Zirkle is a woman of resiliency and heart that has endeared her to mushing fans and aficionados in Alaska. A lesser human being would've given up after all the trials and tribulations she's experienced.
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Apr 23, 2019
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