Last-minute switch: Iditarod musher Zoya DeNure is out and her husband is in

Zoya DeNure of Delta Junction takes a hot dog from a young trailgater on the Campbell Creek trail near Airport Heights during the 2020 Iditarod ceremonial start. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

In another last-minute musher swap, John Schandelmeier left the starting line in Willow on Sunday instead of his wife, Zoya DeNure. Race commentators said DeNure was having health issues.

“Holy switcheroo!” said one commentator as Schandelmeier drove a team of sled dogs into the starting chute.

“This might be the latest sled switch I’ve ever seen in the Iditarod,” said four-time race champion Dallas Seavey who was also providing commentary at the Iditarod start. “That’ll just spice it up a bit.”

In a statement Sunday evening, the Iditarod Trail Committee said DeNure withdrew from the race at noon Sunday — two hours before the race start — due to health reasons.

Race Marshal Mark Nordman made the call to allow Schandelmeier to take over the team. He determined the substitution was “in the best interest of the members of her race team, who have been training all year for this opportunity,” the statement said.

Schandelmeier is a two-time champion of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. He won the race in 1992 and 1996. According to online race records, Schandelmeier has competed in one Iditarod before, in 1993. He scratched from the race, so he’s considered a rookie in this year’s Iditarod. He’s also an outdoor opinion columnist, often writing about mushing for the Anchorage Daily News.

DeNure has started the Iditarod eight times, crossing the finish line twice. She and Schandelmeier run a kennel near Delta Junction, and have two daughters.

Iditarod officials said they weren’t aware of any other musher substitutions in the past that happened so close to the race’s official start. DeNure did drive her team at the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday.

This is the second last-minute musher swap in a week. Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King also dropped out of the 2020 race because of a health issue. King was rushed to the hospital late March 2 and had emergency surgery. King’s handler, Sean Underwood, is taking over his sled dog team.

According to the Iditarod race rules, “substitute drivers will be allowed only in cases of emergency and only if approved by the race marshal prior to the restart of the race.”

The 2020 Iditarod officially started in Willow on Sunday at 2 p.m. The 57 teams— including Underwood and Schandelmeier — left the starting line in heavy snow at two-minute intervals and headed for Nome.

[Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.]