49 Writers Interview: Lew Freedman, Yukon Quest

Lew Freedman has written several books about the Iditarod sled dog race and profiled well-known Alaskan mushers, such as George Attla and DeeDee Jonrowe. His most recent book, published in April by Epicenter Press, is about the “other” great race—the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, not as renowned as the Iditarod but considered by most racers and fans as more extreme and challenging.

With seventeen years’ experience living in Alaska, covering Alaska sled dog racing and other northern events as sports editor for the Anchorage Daily News, Freedman (now sports editor of The Republic in Columbus, Indiana) is well-qualified to bring this race to life. He is a seasoned and adaptable writer who has written on everything from the Olympics to major-league baseball, from the Superbowl to the Mount Marathon Race. Rose Winters interviewed Freedman for 49 Writers.

In Yukon Quest: The Story of the World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race, among the book’s other attributes, I was very impressed with the sense of history it conveyed. You mention in the first chapter that “unlike in other sports. . . mushers know their history. Dog mushers recognize that they are part of a continuum.” Do you think that awareness in other sports is being lost in our culture due to the celebrity-generating mania of modern America? How do you feel about your work as a reporter and a chronicler of the feats of society’s heroes?

I do think dog mushers are more aware of the history of their sport than many other athletes for a number of reasons. Those who mush dogs and live in Alaska and the Yukon are actually competing in the same regions and on the same trails as the original Iditarod racers and Yukon Quest mushers raced on. So comparisons can be made somewhat accurately.

More than that they also live in the areas where the Gold Rush history was written. A contrast to this would be a baseball player raised in Florida who attended college in the Midwest, then spent one season each year for three years moving around the country as a minor leaguer before being promoted to the majors to play for a San Francisco team. So when they arrive in San Francisco as a 22-year-old they might not know how that team has fared over the last half century, might not be aware that Willie Mays was the biggest star in team history or that Hall of Famers like Willie McCovey or Juan Marichal played there.

There was a time when baseball was clearly the most popular sport in the country. Baseball was also a symbol of racism for black people because people of color were excluded from the majors until Jackie Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

For the next several decades, as blacks made inroads on every Major League team, as the first black coach was hired and the first black manager was hired, America’s black population keenly followed advancements in opportunity.

Amazingly, within the lifetime of players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, American blacks have shown a drop-off in interest in the sport that they so heartily wanted to integrate. This is concurrent with the rise of the black athlete as a dominating force in pro basketball and pro football.

What is sad is that in many instances when asked about the history of the black athlete and his struggles in the mid-20th century, many stars don’t know what happened, don’t realize how even the best players were excluded.

Yet I also wonder if singling out black athletes in this vein is appropriate. Young people in high school and college in general, whatever sport they play, and whether or not they play a sport at all, do not often seem very informed about American history.

I am not sure that the premise in your question, on whether the celebrity mania of modern America is to blame for this. The two are not mutually exclusive. LeBron James may be a superstar in basketball and even a cross-cultural icon who makes commercials and appears on TV shows, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know history. My impression, from conversations with him and things I have read indicate to me he does know the history of the game that has made him famous.

Also, in your question, you refer to “society’s heroes.” I assume in reference to prominent athletes. I have always been careful to separate a star from a hero. Not the same thing. A star athlete may be admired for his skills and talents on the field, but that doesn’t make him a hero. In my mind a hero transcends sports achievement with some other type of accomplishment. For example, someone who volunteers time to travel to places destroyed by national disasters and raises money to help those people. Peyton Manning may be the greatest quarterback of all time, but to me a better reason to admire him is his volunteer efforts to distribute food in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit.

You’ve been a sports writer for many years, written many books on professional sports such as baseball and basketball, and naturally have conducted numerous interviews with top-ranked athletes. How would you compare the top Alaskan mushers to the stars of more popular mainstream sports? Do you see similar traits and attitudes? How would you characterize the most significant differences?

Most Alaskan athletes, whether it is dog mushers or skiers in the Olympics are more down to earth than top athletes in other sports. What a top notch dog musher and a top notch basketball player have in common more than anything is a dedicated to training, a commitment to being the best, a willingness to put in the time, and maintaining a refuse-to-lose attitude.

Many top Alaskan athletes, other than dog mushers, must leave the state to compete at the highest level offered by their sport. An example would be an Olympic caliber skier. To keep up with the best in the world and challenge for Olympic medals, that Alaskan would have to compete around the world on the World Cup circuit.

Alaska being a special place, it’s my opinion that almost all of them do consider Alaska home and enjoy coming back even more if they are forced to travel extensively for their sport.

As a professional writer, it’s expected for you to write about the winners. In Yukon Quest you also do a wonderful job of illuminating the importance of the race to every participant; the life-changing effect it has on every musher who’s ever crossed the finish line. But as a professional, how hard is it to sell a story about the ‘also-ran’ competitors, the participants in any sport who merely finish? Do you see any trend over the last couple of decades to publish more–or fewer–stories about the non-winners?

In a daily newspaper, under the pressure of time, and with the unfolding of an event with a score or a first-place winner, one would be negligent not focusing on the winners. So in a story with a daily result, it is natural to focus on the winners with some exceptions. An opportunity to write something about someone else, or another aspect of the sporting event beyond who the top finishers were, is present if you are the second person on the story, there to write either a column or a sidebar. A very real example of how this works can be seen on Monday mornings in major U.S. cities, the day after a professional football team representing that city plays a game. For one thing, football teams only play once a week so their games are magnified. The newspaper will have someone who does write the game story, explaining how the game was one. However, there will likely be sidebars featuring other players on the home team’s performance, the key play, and even a story from the opposition locker room, in addition to a columnist or two.

Over the last decades I think there has been more awareness of writing stories about athletes who are not “winners” in the strict sense. In a book like the Yukon Quest, where there is far more room than in a daily newspaper, the opportunity and obligation is there to tell funny, funky, unusual stories from the history of the event, regardless if they revolve around the champion.

What I have seen in the last couple of years, including what is going on right now, is a trend by worried book publishers only to cut deals about big-name, famous sports figures if they will use their fame to help promote the book, rather than just sign a deal with an author to write a really good story that doesn’t have anyone famous in it.I find this a troublesome trend, both as an author, and as someone who is an avid reader.

In Yukon Quest you blend the history of the race in with the recap of the 2009 event, by inserting historical chapters between the chapters narrating the 2009 race. It adds an interesting depth to the book. How did you decide to use that format? And did you find it challenging to keep the whole piece cohesive?

To be honest, when I lived in Alaska and worked for the Anchorage Daily News, I wrote far more about the Iditarod than the Yukon Quest. I always wanted to have the chance to follow the race on the trail, but ended up moving away before I could do it. So if I was going to write a book on Quest history I most assuredly wanted to have the experience of following a whole race.

When that race was over and I had reported on all of the other years and heard the stories, I was faced with a dilemma. Although the 2009 race was not necessarily more important than any of the others, it was the most recent. That is why I used it as the framework to build the history around.

Thinking specifically as an Alaskan sports writer, what’s the most exciting or unusual situation you’ve found yourself in while covering events on the Last Frontier?

The biggest events on the sports calendar each year in Alaska are the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and probably the Great Alaska Shootout. Covering the Shootout for many years gave me the opportunity to meet and write about basketball figures who became famous later. Covering the Iditarod always made me feel more in touch with Alaska, the land, and the people than any other event, with the World Eskimo Indian Olympics serving as runnerup for those reasons.

Standing at the finish line for more than an hour waiting for Rick Swenson to come in at the end of the 1991 Iditarod when it was 25 below with a 50 below wind chill factor when he won his record fifth Iditarod, is one of my most memorable moments. I had to run for a phone to make deadline with the paper being held for three paragraphs to top the lead story, too.

There are specific sports you’ve focused on writing about in your books–baseball and football, and of course sled dog racing. Naturally, you’ve had a lot of exposure to those events as well as many other sports, as a writer for the Chicago Tribune and the Anchorage Daily News. Do you feel you’ve been able to focus most of your career covering the sports that you enjoy most? Or has life taken you on a path you didn’t plan for?

Life has definitely taken me on paths I didn’t plan for. I grew up in the Boston area and was sure I would be a sports writer there. Even when I moved to Syracuse to cover government news in 1975, I was certain I would be back. It has never happened.

My career has dictated where I have gone. I also worked for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I thought I might be in Philadelphia forever and when that didn’t work out Alaska and I found each other. After 17 years in Alaska between 1984 and 2001 I was feeling fairly certain I would stay there. The Chicago Tribune made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I went off to Chicago, thinking I would be there forever. Until the newspaper business went haywire and I was laid off.

Since May of this year I have been the sports editor of The Republic in Columbus, Indiana and I think this is my last job. The atmosphere in the newsroom resembles what it was like to work at the Daily News in the 1980s. However, since the temperature has been inching within shouting distance of 100 degrees every day lately, I would say it is a teeny bit warmer than Alaska.

Alaska is such a special place that it will always feel like home and I will always stay in touch with the state, visit as often as possible, and keep it dear to my heart. I do write a column once a week for Alaska Newspapers for their weeklies and that’s one way I stay linked to the state.

Your career as a sports writer has led you all over the U.S., meeting hundreds of top athletes, covering major sporting events, watching exciting and historically significant events. However, you must have one story, one event or athlete that you’ve always hoped to write about, but haven’t had the opportunity. What would be your dream assignment (real or imagined)?

Interesting question. I will say this. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to write a story from Arkansas. That represented having a byline from all 50 states, a quiet goal of mine that took years to reach after I thought of it in the early 1990s.
Likewise, I have written at least one story from each Canadian province or territory — except for Nunavat, created in 1999. I would like to write something from there.

Until May my biggest goal in sports writing was to cover the Indianapolis 500, but I got to do it. I have been at only one Super Bowl, so I would like to cover another one if I could.

As for athletes, my favorite baseball player as a kid was Ted Williams and I did get to interview him in the late 1970s. My favorite basketball player was Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics and a couple of years ago when I got to write a book about the Celtics I had the chance to interview Cousy. Even better, after the book came out he sent me a fan note.

This may sound a bit hokey, but it dovetails with how I approach sports writing. Rather than one particular individual that I would like to interview in sports, I would like to find a new great story every month to write for the rest of my career. The athlete may not be famous, but would have a great tale to tell.

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