Reaching the pinnacle of any sport takes determination, skill and dedication to your craft. Defeating your competitors – those who, just like you, have invested countless hours and immeasurable effort in their attempts to succeed – is an exceptional accomplishment.
Achieving that goal once is remarkable, but what about if you achieve it on four separate occasions? That’s exactly what Jeff King did by winning the Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2006. The Iditarod is considered to be the toughest challenge for a musher and their team of sled dogs, tackling 1,049 miles of the treacherous Alaskan terrain.
In our recent podcast episode, Short Notice, we referenced King as we focused on the story of rookie musher Sean Underwood in the 2020 Iditarod. King was originally scheduled to take part in the race, but when he had to undergo emergency surgery in the week prior to the race start, he nominated Underwood – who King had been mentoring for future races – to take his place.
In this article, we’re going to look at the life and career of Jeff King. Owing to his decorated career in the sport, King is frequently referred to as ‘The Winningest Musher in the World’ and is undoubtedly a legend of the sport.
It may seem a world away from the icy depths of Alaska, but King was actually born in North Fork, California, on February 6, 1956. Spending his early years in The Golden State, King decided to make a big move In 1975 – when he was still only in his late teens. King moved to Alaska in search of adventure.
As one might expect, King quickly gained an interest in the world of dog sledding and everything it encompassed. He developed a construction business, and simultaneously started to devote every spare moment (and spare dollar) to building his own dog sled team. He started racing in 1980, and competed in his first Iditarod just one year later.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, King decided to dedicate all of his time to mushing. He decided to set aside the construction business he had built over the past decade in order to pursue his aspirations in the dog sled world.
In March 1989, King was victorious in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. This was achieved whilst overcoming significant adversity. King had been forced to drop out of the same race the previous year due to frostbite, and even worse was to follow – in early January 1989, just two months before the Yukon Quest started, his house caught fire and burned down, killing two of his most treasured dogs. King overcame the trauma and netted the $20,000 prize for the winner. He said afterwards he and his wife would use the money to rebuild their home.
Success in the Iditarod would follow shortly thereafter for King. After finishing in 12th in 1991 and sixth in 1992, King won the race in 1993 in a time of 10 days, 15 hours, 38 minutes and 15 seconds. King was able to beat DeeDee Jonrowe into second place, whilst the top ten also featured such illustrious Iditarod names as Susan Butcher, Martin Buser and Rick Swenson.
Shortly after his first Iditarod win, King would reflect on his victory in a post-race media interview (these quotes are taken from the original race report in the Los Angeles Times).
“There are some things that are mystical and magical about the Iditarod,” said King. “I had to get over that. I had to believe that there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to win it without a miracle.”
After the first Iditarod win
The first win in 1993 led to a golden spell for King in the Iditarod. He finished in the top ten in each edition of the race between 1992 and 2004, with victories in 1996 and 1998. King was inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 1999.
In addition to the Iditarod, King also achieved success in other sled dog races; for example, he won nine Kuskokwim 300 races between 1991 and 2013. King’s success has forged a legacy that will outlast his active career in the sport.
In 2006, at the age of 50, King won his fourth Iditarod – making him the oldest musher to win the Iditarod. His four wins puts him in elite company as one of only seven individuals to have won at least four Iditarod races (the others being Dallas Seavey and Rick Swenson (five victories each), and Susan Butcher, Doug Swingley, Martin Buser and Lance Mackey (four victories each)).
After finishing as runner-up in 2008 and a pair of third places in 2010 and 2013, King had a seemingly golden opportunity to win his fifth Iditarod in 2014. At the penultimate checkpoint leaving White Mountain, King had a lead of an hour over his nearest competitor. However, a severe coastal windstorm in the final stages of the race created one of the most unpredictable finishes in the history of the Iditarod – and ultimately resulted in victory for Dallas Seavey.
This fantastic video from the Anchorage Daily News features the reflections of King and Seavey, a couple of years after this dramatic conclusion.
Recent activity and King’s legacy
King has competed in the Iditarod in recent years, with his most recent finish a 13th place in 2019, before his emergency surgery prevented him from entering the 2020 race.
Outside of competing, King is the owner of Husky Homestead in Denali Park, AK. Husky Homestead offers summer tours and winter tours for visitors, giving a unique insight into the mushing world and offering the chance to see sled dogs in their training environment. His charismatic and dynamic personality has also made King a popular choice for speaking engagements.
With his four Iditarod triumphs, numerous other sled dog race victories, and over 150,000 miles logged in a dog sled over his thirty-five year career, Jeff King’s commitment and drive to the sport of mushing is unquestionable. Without doubt, he has earned his rightful place as a legend of the sport.