Ever wonder how a woman like Susan Butcher, the Cambridge native who won the epic Iditarod four times, got her start?
Look no further than Lily Stewart.
At 16, the Ipswich High sophomore won the bronze medal in the four-dog mass start event at the International Federation of Sleddog Sports Winter World Championships in North Pole, Alaska, just outside Fairbanks.
Competing against an international field early last month, Stewart and her four dogs — Grinder, Chess, KT, and Endo — went toe-to-toe with the world’s best female mushers in a free-for-all that had all the makings of a canine-powered demolition derby over a slick 5.7-mile course.
“She’d never done it,” said her mother, Diane Stewart. “The dogs had never done it. Twenty teams of grown-ups from all around the world, going hellbent for leather for one trail. She had a rough start, and we’re thinking, as long as she and the dogs don’t get hurt.”
Stewart not only came away unscathed, but she won a spot on the podium, edging out a hard-charging musher from France for third place. She was the highest-placing American in the event (a rollicking video of the race, taken with Stewart’s helmet-mounted camera, can be found on YouTube by searching for Stewart’s name and “4 dog mass start”).
“As soon as we went out, I immediately saw that disaster could happen at any time, because there are all these lines, and all these dogs running on top of each other,” she said. “They really don’t care where the other dogs are going. They just want to get up to the front and lead the pack. That was pretty scary, but it was exhilarating.”
‘You get into this zone where nothing else really exists.’
Stewart’s passion for dog-sledding began when she was 7.
“When I was in kindergarten, I was always entranced by dogs, obsessed with dogs,” she said. “I finally convinced my mom to take me to a sled-dog ride at a winter carnival up in Fryeburg, Maine, on a big frozen lake. And it was just a bunch of fluffy huskies that kind of trotted around the lake. After that, I was just hooked. I needed more and more and more.”
Two years after that leisurely spin around Kezar Pond, Stewart started racing. She and her mother connected with the Bailey family of Stratford, N.H., who provided guidance and eventually leased dogs to the Stewarts in exchange for Lily’s help with their training and care.
Her first race, at age 9, was in Hill Village, N.H., and she hasn’t slowed since.
“It feels like you’re flying, really,” said Stewart. “At first, it’s a little nerve-racking, because it is just you and the dogs, but then you get into this zone where nothing else really exists.”
There are key distinctions between Stewart’s races and the famed Iditarod — a race of more than 1,100 miles — that Butcher mastered. Stewart specializes in the sprint distances, usually between 4 and 6 miles. Even her dogs, leased from the Baileys and Jocelyn Bradbury of Oxford, Maine, are different. Unlike the stereotypical husky, Stewart runs a team of husky-pointer mixes.
“They look like your typical hound,” she said. “You don’t really see much of the husky in them, just because the hound shines through most when you cross those two breeds. In sprint racing, the hounds become a lot more prevalent, just because they’re faster and they have shorter coats, so they don’t overheat as much over the shorter distances.”
At 13, Stewart graduated from the junior ranks to the open class. With a seven-year racing resume, she applied for a spot on the US national team that competed last month in Alaska.
Stewart was selected to race for the US adult team just a month after her 16th birthday. The next-youngest racer was 20.
“All of a sudden, all of my greatest dreams were coming true, knowing I would be able to go up there, race dogs, and be among the best of the best in the world,” Stewart said.
To fund her five-week, transcontinental trek (along with the Baileys, father Scott, siblings Lis and Grace, and a friend, Nathalie Fortier), Stewart raised thousands. She solicited donations online but received a windfall of corporate sponsorships from Ebsco Publishing in Ipswich, L.L. Bean, Carhartt, and New England Outfitters.
At 5 foot 3 inches and 105 pounds, Stewart has the weight-to-strength ratio that makes her a formidable opponent. Her four-dog team, pulling Stewart and her high-tech, 22-pound Danler Hornet sled, can hit speeds nearing 30 miles an hour, covering a sub 6-mile course in under 16 minutes.
A month after the Alaskan adventure, Diane Stewart still gets emotional talking about her youngest child coming into the finishing stretch, almost in a dead heat with the fourth-place finisher from France.
“We walked back to the finish, and see Miss Norway, tops in the world for 20 years, coming in first. Then we see the Swedish gal coming in. Then, in the last corner, all of a sudden we see two heads, and one of them was Lily’s,” said Diane Stewart.
“So she’s battling it out for bronze. And it was like somebody else’s life. It was just amazing.”
It was a busy winter for Stewart, who balances school work, weekday track practices (she runs the 2-mile event), and dog-sled racing. Her Ipswich High track coach, Gardy O’Flynn, said she has an innate ability to compete that’s been honed through running the dogs.
“You could tell that her determination and her willingness to compete has been tested in her previous experiences with dog-sled racing,” said O’Flynn. “She really improved as the year went on. She picked up some valuable points in several of our meets in our undefeated season. So she did a tremendous job.”
A simple description of Stewart is reminiscent of the old adage that pets often resemble their owners. She is a dedicated athlete with a sweet disposition, and an insatiable hunger to be at the front of the pack.
Diane Stewart noted that her daughter has successfully maintained perspective, and friendships, within the dog-sledding community.
“But on race day,” she said, “her game face is on.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.