Susan Butcher (1954-2006)
“I don’t know the word ‘quit’.”
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1954, Susan Butcher went to Colorado State University where she studied to become a veterinarian technician. However, her passion for dogsled racing eventually inspired her to move to Alaska, where she competed in her first Iditarod in 1978.
The Iditarod, also known as the, “Last Great Race on Earth®,” is the world-famous dogsled race that takes place in Alaska, covering a distance of over 1,000 miles of unforgiving terrain. During the race, mushers and their teams will cross terrain that consists of dense forest, jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, windswept coastlines, and desolate tundra. The elements are no less problematic—long hours of darkness, heavy winds that can lead to loss of visibility, temperatures falling far below zero—which can lead to dire consequences—overflow hazards, and more. The Iditarod has a reputation as a race that isn’t for the faint of heart and pushes its participants past the limits of ability and endurance. It requires preparation, training, skill, and a determination as strong as steel. The reputation of this race extraordinaire, from Anchorage to Nome, makes Susan Butcher’s legacy and accomplishments all the more impressive and inspiring!
Susan first participated in the Iditarod in 1978, but even more impressive, she participated in every Iditarod from 1978-1994, placing in the top five twelve times during her career. The only time she had to withdraw early from the race was in 1985 when she and her team had a horrible incident with a raging bull moose that injured six of her dogs and killed two. She came back a year later, though, and went on to win first place in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1990. She was the second woman to ever win the Iditarod, the second person to win the race four times, but the first to win four out of five sequential years. Her achievements in dogsled racing further led to her receiving the U.S. Victor Award, the National Women’s Sports Foundation Amateur Athlete of the Year Award, and the Female Athlete of the Year award.
She retired from dogsled racing in the mid 90s, but not before she had left a permanent mark on the race itself, as well as powerfully influenced the sport’s training and care of dogsled teams for the better. Her best lead dog, Granite, is equally as famous as Susan, who raised him from the time he was a sickly, unimpressive puppy that no one expected anything from him. Granite and Susan’s story is one of hope and determination, and in finding strength in the most unexpected places. You can find a bronze statue of Granite, engraved “Greatest Lead Dog in Iditarod History,” in Fairbanks, Alaska, and in 2008 the state of Alaska honored Susan (posthumously) by establishing “Susan Butcher Day,” which falls on the first Saturday of March.
Speaking of Susan, her husband said in a New York Times article:
“She never thought there should be any barriers for women…She was the first woman ever to dominate and be the best in the world at a sport where men and women compete equally, and the men did not like that.”
“I don’t think she ever thought of herself as a pioneer.”
Though she may not have traveled as extensively as some of our featured “Globetrotters of History,” we feel that Susan’s incredible courage, strength, and determination—which helped her achieve things that so few could—make her a truly inspiring woman from history!
by “Go-To Global Gal” Alyce Howard