A four-time Iditarod champion shared his story of defying the odds and the importance of chasing dreams to a group of 600 Hermantown elementary students last Friday afternoon.
Lance Mackey traveled from Fox, Alaska, to share one message. “Follow your dreams,” Mackey said. “Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.”
Mackey was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001 and was told by doctors that he wouldn’t be able to race. As a result of radiation treatments, Mackey ‘s body was left much weaker than before.
This didn’t stop Mackey, though, and he continued to train for races. He ultimately went on to win the Iditarod and Yukon Quest four times each.
“It’s not just a career but a passion and hobby, all wrapped in one,” Mackey said. “When you put your mind to something, you can do whatever you like.”
Cancer wasn’t the only obstacle that Mackey faced. In 2008, his dog team got in an accident with a snow machine, which forced his dog, Zorro, into retirement. Mackey took the opportunity to appear in trail safety commercials and create awareness. “In every negative there is a positive,” Mackey said.
Mackey used these obstacles to show students that perseverance, hard work, and finding opportunities in negative situations will lead to success.
He retold the story of winning the Iditarod for the first time and the particular memory that stood out the most. He made a point to tell each individual dog how proud he was before finishing the race. When he reached his lead dog, Larry, he said, “Larry, I know you know where we are, but you should know we’re first this time.”
Larry puffed out his chest and proceeded to strut to the finish line. “Larry fell asleep on the podium with his chest still puffed out,” Mackey said. “He’s far smarter than any of us.”
Mackey said his dogs mean everything to him. “I fear I won’t hold up to the expectations of my dogs,” Mackey said. “I hope I’m the man my dogs expect me to be.”
Even though winning the Iditarod four times is a huge achievement, Mackey said he was most proud of winning the Humanitarian Award, an award given by veterinarians along the racecourse to the musher that gives the best care to his dogs. “If it wasn’t for my dogs, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Mackey said. “They gave me a second chance.”
The audience exchanged whispers of amazement when Mackey continued talking about his dogs. He said he has 115 dogs aged two days old to 10 years old. He attributes his success to the teamwork in working together with these dogs to accomplish the same task.
These messages were especially powerful for second graders at Hermantown, who have been studying the Iditarod and learning the dedication, determination and teamwork the race requires. Hearing Mackey’s story firsthand was an experience they are likely never to forget.
Billy Filler and Campbell Sugovich, both second graders in Mr. Mark’s class, enjoyed being able to hear Mackey speak. “I liked when we asked questions,” Sugovich said. “It was really, really exciting!”
Billy Filler also expressed his admiration of Mackey. “I thought it was really cool to see someone who won the Iditarod four times in a row,” Filler said. “It was awesome!”
Mackey concluded his speech by presenting Hermantown Elementary school with a signed copy of his book, “The Lance Mackey Story,” which gives more detailed accounts of his struggles and successes.
He left the audience with one thought to ponder. “Remember this forever,” Mackey said, “follow your dreams.”
Watch a video of Mackey speak about his trials with cancer below: