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Iditarod's winningest musher Swenson pulls out of race

Suzanna Caldwell

For the first time in almost two decades, five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson won't be at the starting line when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins March 2 in downtown Anchorage.

Swenson, the race's winningest musher, withdrew on Thursday, citing personal reasons, according to the race website. It's the first time since 1997 the veteran dog driver will be absent from the starting line of the world's richest sled-dog race across the wilds to Nome on the 49th state's northwest coast. Five mushers -- Susan Butcher, Martin Buser, Lance Mackey, Doug Swingley and Jeff King -- trail Swenson with four victories apiece, but picking up No. 5 has always proven vexing.

Race Marshall Mark Nordman told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Swenson's decision was “an extreme disappointment.”

"He's the man of the trail and has knowledge to pass on to all the mushers,” Nordman told the News-Miner. "He is an innovator and continues to be. He's the master of dog care and one so many look up to. He will be missed out there."

Swenson, 61, has started the race 35 times and finished 33. He is the only five-time winner of the race, with wins in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1991. Swenson's last top-10 finish was in 2004 when he placed seventh. The Two Rivers musher placed 30th last year.

In 2011 Swenson broke his collarbone in a crash early in the race but pushed ahead to Nome, eventually finishing 20th. Since his first Iditarod in 1976, Swenson has only missed a handful of them. He scratched in McGrath in 2005 citing the welfare of his dogs. In 1996 Swenson was disqualified after a dog died in his team. In protest of that rule, which was later removed, Swenson did not run the race in 1997.

Nordman told the News-Miner he expects Swenson to return to the race next year.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com