By Shane Sparks
On the walls of wrestling rooms across the country reads one of the legendary Dan Gable’s most famous and boldest quotes. “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else is easy.”
Those words may hold true for most, but like with anything else there is always an exception.
Dallas Seavey was on wrestling’s fast track. As a Cadet in 2003, Seavey captured the 125-pound Greco-Roman national title in Fargo to give Alaska its first ever national champion. Shortly after his junior year of high school, Seavey stood atop the podium as an Alaska state champion.
But as a senior in high school, Dallas put his wrestling aspirations on hold to focus on running his first Iditarod sled dog race.
Seavey comes from deep mushing bloodlines. His grandfather Dan placed third at the first Iditarod in 1973 and his father Mitch won the race in 2004. Turning 18 (the minimum age to participate) the day before his rookie race in March of 2005, Dallas made history by becoming the youngest person to to ever finish the 1,000 mile race.
Seavey quickly got back to pursuing his goal of becoming an Olympic champion and moved to Northern Michigan to train at the USOEC. Just four months after his first Iditarod, Seavey represented the United States at the FILA Junior World Championships in Lithuania, going 1-1.
During the next year, he positioned himself into the top five of the U.S. Senior level rankings. But behind the visible glories and triumphs inside the circle of a wrestling mat, Seavey was wrestling with persistent concussions and concussion-related health issues.
In a battle against something tougher than any gutwrench or front headlock he’d ever encountered, Dallas was forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his young life. At only 19 years old and far from reaching his full potential, he made what he knew was the right decision and walked away from the sport.
“I did not want that,” Seavey said. “That was my life. I wrestled. To leave that behind was pretty tough to do.”
With that door being shut the obvious choice was turning to mushing. It was a smooth transition as Dallas appreciated the parallels between the two sports.
“Like wrestling, mushing is a lifestyle,” he said. “You’re always looking to get better and that improvement is based upon the commitment you’re willing to make.”
Grateful for the opportunities and lessons provided by wrestling Seavey said there is no denying the role the sport still plays in his life today.
“There is a certain tenacity and guts that you develop in wrestling and you can’t walk away from the sport without being forever changed,” he said.
With a unique set of circumstances a musher is both athlete and more importantly a coach. Seavey, who last year won the respected Yukon Quest to become the youngest musher to ever win a 1,000 mile race, again comments on the benefits of his wrestling background.
“After competing at a high level as an athlete, I have a better understanding and appreciation for what my athletes (dogs) are doing and what they are going through,” Seavey said. Since mid-September, the 16 dogs that make up Seavey’s JJ Keller Race Team have tallied over 3,500 miles of training.
The toughest and most mentally demanding aspect of the race is dealing with sleep deprivation while at the same time dealing with temperatures that dip to around 50 below. The goal for Dallas is to run the 9-10 day race on under 20 hours of sleep amidst encounters with wild animals that can attack the team.
Just three weeks ago on a training run Seavey and his dogs ran into a 2,000-pound moose. Dallas carries a 357 Magnum for protection.
Since his first Iditarod in 2005, Seavey has raced in four others. Placing in the top ten in each of the last three races including a fourth-place finish last year in becoming the youngest to ever finish in the top five. If Dallas is the first to cross the finish line in Nome this year or next, he will add another milestone to his already impressive resume. Seavey seeks to become the youngest ever Iditarod champion.
Dallas says he has learned that his approach to the race is critical.
“Like in wrestling, you can’t go into a big match thinking you’re going to win,” he said. “You have to know that you have put in the time and are better prepared than your opponent. Winning has to be an expectation.”
The Iditarod begins on March 3 in Anchorage, Alaska. Seavey and his athletes are ready to put it on the line.
“This is normal to me,” he said. “This is what I do. There is no reason to believe anything can happen to me and my team that will keep us from getting the job done.”
Like all who have ever had the courage to step onto a mat, wrestling has made an impression on Seavey. With a quick glance it is impossible to see the impact the sport has made on him. When Dallas takes off his JJ Keller stocking cap, it’s then when the battle scars and cauliflower ears that represent wrestling are recognizable, but that is just on the surface.
During the Iditarod when Dallas is fighting life-threatening conditions in the middle of nowhere, it is then when the impact of the world’s oldest and greatest sport can be seen as clear as can be.
(Dallas Seavey is part of the JJ Keller Iditarod Racing Team. JJ Keller is located in Neenah, Wisc. James Keller has been a generous supporter of Wisconsin high school wrestling.)