Dog mushers and sled dog racing fans alike are growling over a recent online Sports Illustrated (SI) article.
“Let’s start a barroom argument. Who are the toughest athletes in sports?” the magazine’s anonymous toughness experts asked its readers in the April 1st feature posted on sportsillustrated.cnn.com. But Sports Illustrated didn’t wait around for an answer – they went right ahead and made up their own list of the top 25 toughest athletes. And, of course, not every reader agrees with the lineup.
You would think that dog mushers would just be happy to see their sport finally recognized right alongside of other popular and tough sports such as football, basketball, baseball, hockey, triathlons, ultimate fighting, boxing, golf…
“Wait, did she say golf?” you might be asking yourself.
Tiger Woods is the number one toughest athlete on SI’s list. And that has mushers barking at the end of their chains. A golfer is tougher than a dog musher?
“What makes him tough: Otherworldly talent, determination and focus that enables him to dominate his sport at 64 PGA wins and counting, including a recent streak of seven in a row,” SI explains of Tiger. “No one is better at sealing the deal when the heat is highest.”
Lance Mackey, dog musher, was listed as the second toughest athlete.
“What makes him tough: Caginess and steadfast refusal to quit in the face of throat cancer (2001), hostile terrain and 40-below temperatures,” SI states of Mackey. “He did the impossible in sled dog racing – win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and 1,100-mile Iditarod within a month – not once, but in two straight years, most recently this year on frostbitten feet that hadn’t fully healed after the Quest.”
Really, it all boils down to how one defines the word, “tough.” And, for that matter, how one defines the word, “athlete.” After all, number 25 on SI’s list – Joey Chesnut, a competitive eater - wouldn’t qualify as an “athlete” in the minds of many sports purists.
It’s hard to take SI’s list of toughest athletes too seriously when the world record-holder of hot dog eating (66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes) places above any cyclists, gymnasts, swimmers, or bull riders.
I couldn’t help but become intrigued with Sports Illustrated’s question. It got me thinking about both “being tough” and “being an athlete.”
There is no arguing that Iditarod and Yukon Quest mushers are tough. Like a professional golfer (or any other elite athlete), long-distance mushers must be focused and gritty - mentally tough.
Mushers withstand subzero temperatures, sleep deprivation, hallucinations. They get lost in the wilderness, attacked by moose and buffalo, fall through the ice. Mushers endure - and endurance is what the sport is all about.
When it comes to labeling mushers as “athletes,” the word applies only to a portion of those competing. Mushers are coaches, trainers, caretakers. The dogs get the musher to the finish line – they are the true athletes. Many mushers wouldn’t argue with this fact; I don’t know any musher who has competed in the Iditarun (the running race covering the exact same Iditarod Sled Dog Race trail) just to see what it really feels like to run 1,100 miles.
Tiger is tough, Mackey is tough, even Chesnut is tough. Every person at the top of their game must have that rare combination of mental and physical fortitude under the most harsh and demanding situations.
Given the choice, I’d rather run the Iditarod Trail myself than eat the 8.6 pounds of asparagus in ten minutes, 182 chicken wings in half an hour, 47 grilled cheese sandwiches in ten minutes, and 103 Krystal hamburgers in eight minutes necessary to clinch the title of the 25th toughest athlete in the world.
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