ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, died on Saturday of cancer. She was 51.
Butcher was not the first woman to win the Iditarod, but she dominated the 1,150-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome during the 1980s and early 1990s.
She was one of the world's most celebrated female athletes and inspired a popular slogan: "Alaska - Where Men are Men and Women Win the Iditarod."
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (news, bio, voting record), a family friend, announced Butcher's death. "Susan was a remarkable and courageous woman. Alaska shall not forget her," Stevens said in a news release.
Butcher had been suffering from leukemia, diagnosed in 2005. She died of complications from a bone marrow transplant while receiving treatment at a Seattle hospital.
"I don't know that I've ever been any more shook up since John F. Kennedy died," Jeff King, a four-time champion who won the Iditarod this year, told Reuters.
"I don't think I had any idea how hard this was going to be. Because only now do I realize that she represented even more than a friend, a mentor for the sport."
Butcher grew up in Massachusetts but a love of the outdoors and sled-dog racing took her to Alaska. She was a protege of the late Joe Redington, the founder of the Iditarod.
With Redington, Butcher made headlines in 1979 when she drove the first team of sled dogs to the summit of Mt. McKinley, North America's tallest peak.
By the early 1980s, Butcher had been expected to be the first woman to win the Iditarod. She was leading in the 1985 race, but a collision with a moose killed some of her dogs. That year, Libby Riddles made a daring dash during a Bering Sea storm and was the first woman to win the race.
Butcher went on to win the Iditarod in four of the next five years. She retired from racing in 1994 to raise a family.
Her husband, attorney David Monson, is a past champion of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Butcher leaves two daughters.
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Ex-Iditarod winner Susan Butcher dies
4-TIME CHAMPION, 51, HELPED BRING RACE TO A WIDER AUDIENCE
By Jeannette J. Lee
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher died Saturday in a Seattle hospital of a re-occurrence of leukemia after a recent stem-cell transplant, her doctor said. She was 51.
Butcher dominated the 1,100-mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome in the late 1980s, bringing increased national attention to the grueling competition. She won the 1986 race to become the second female champion, added victories in 1987, '88 and '90 and finished in the top four through 1993.
``What she did is brought this race to an audience that had never been aware of it before simply because of her personality,'' Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said.
She also made headlines in 1979 when she helped drive the first sled-dog team to the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.
Dr. Jan Abkowitz said that after a stem-cell transplant May 16, Butcher developed graft-vs.-host-disease, in which transplanted cells attacked her digestive system.
``Then to our dismay and surprise, about a week ago, when we did a routine bone marrow test, we found that her leukemia had come back,'' Abkowitz said.
Butcher received chemotherapy for the leukemia and was moved to intensive care Friday at the University of Washington Medical Center.
``At the time she had the transplant, her leukemia was in remission. She was feeling absolutely fine,'' Abkowitz said.
Three years ago, when she was considering a comeback, doctors found Butcher had polycythemia vera, a rare disease that causes the bone marrow to produce excess blood.
Butcher was known as a focused and confident competitor, who loved her dogs, and insisted they remain fit and disciplined.
``Anything she did she'd do with real intensity,'' said Joe Runyan, who broke Butcher's three-year winning streak in 1989. ``She was really able to focus on the job and that's what made her really good at her sport.''
Runyan said the rivalry was always good-natured and that Butcher was more willing than many mushers to share dog-care tips and training methods. During recent Iditarods, she would fly along the trail to chat with old opponents and visit the many friends she had in the Alaska Native villages that serve as checkpoints.
One of the last times Runyan saw Butcher was during this year's Iditarod in the Yukon River town of Ruby.
``We were talking about who was winning the race,'' said Runyan, who was working as a race commentator.
Butcher ran her last Iditarod in 1994 when she and husband Davis Monson decided to have children. They have two daughters, Tekla and Chisana.
Butcher planned to compete in a 300-mile race last winter, but was unable to compete after she was diagnosed with leukemia in early December.
``Now my goal is to try and stay alive and fight leukemia,'' she told the Associated Press. ``No questions asked, that's what I am going to do.''
Never make someone a priority in your life when that someone treats you like an option.