Nearly all of the mushers in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race signed up for the competition months ago. Then there’s Sean Underwood.
Underwood got tapped to race in the 2020 Iditarod days before it started. He took over Jeff King’s team, after the four-time race champion had emergency surgery last week.
And suddenly, 28-year-old Underwood went from dog handler to the musher of an all-star dog team in a 1,000 mile race.
Sean Underwood can pinpoint the exact minute that changed his winter, if not his entire life.
It was last Tuesday, and Underwood was called into the office at Husky Homestead, the kennel where he works outside of Denali National Park. His boss, Jeff King, just had surgery in Anchorage for a perforated intestine.
Underwood got on the phone, and talked to King.
“He called me after surgery and told me, ‘Sean, time to put your big boy pants on,’” Underwood said.
King said he wanted Underwood to take his place in the Iditarod. He just needed race officials to approve the change. Underwood said he couldn’t believe it. The race started in four days.
“I spent the whole day in this weird limbo of, ‘Wait, Jeff just got out of surgery. He’s probably kind of loopy. Is this real? Are you sure? It’s probably not even allowed, I’m a rookie,’” he said.
Hours later, Underwood got another call: Race officials had agreed to let him take King’s place in the Iditarod. They said Underwood knew the dogs well, and had the race experience. He’s completed two 300-mile competitions, plus a 200-mile one.
In that moment, Underwood was launched from a behind-the-scenes kennel employee to the star of the show. He’s not just driving a race champion’s team in the most famous sled dog race, he also took over all of King’s events in the lead up to the race.
The easy-going musher says he doesn’t mind. He’s enjoying it.
“Growing up as a kid I always was like the class clown and looking for attention. So I guess I’m kind of living out my childhood desires of people asking me questions and excited to meet me but it’s a lot and it’s a little overwhelming, doesn’t mean I’m not excited about it,” he said in an interview on Friday at an Anchorage hotel, before a meet and greet with race fans that he was headlining with three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.
“Having a line of 20 people for 90 minutes wanting an autograph from me and asking me about, you know, how I’m feeling, it’s pretty surreal,” he said.
Underwood wasn’t always into sled dog racing. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that he wasn’t quite sure what the Iditarod even was.
Growing up in Atlanta, Underwood graduated from Georgia Southern University with an economics degree. He traveled for several months, and realized he didn’t want to jump into an office job, he said. So he called his aunt and uncle in Anchorage, and moved to Kodiak Island in the summer of 2015 to help them commercial fish.
“It was just a totally different lifestyle that I had never been introduced to because I grew up in the suburbs, playing tennis,” he said.
Underwood came back another summer, and then asked his aunt and uncle what kind of work he could get if he stayed the winter. They brought up sled dogs. They said they knew Jeff King.
“When they told me the four-time Iditarod champion, I kind of, like, smiled and nodded and then waited for them to go to bed just so I could pull out my phone and Google what an Iditarod was, then I figured it out,” Underwood said. “And I gave Jeff a call. And he got me a job.”
Underwood started out scooping poop, and then graduated to taking dogs on training runs.
Over the past four years, he said, he’s gotten to know King’s dogs well.
“They think of me as at least one of their dads and they look at me anytime I’m around like, ‘Oh, there’s Sean! What’s he up to there? You gonna come and get me a little hug, maybe some love and attention?’ Underwood said, turning his voice up an octave as he took on the dogs’ persona.
“We’re really close,” he said. “I love them so much.”
King remained in the hospital on Tuesday, still recovering from surgery.
Underwood said the veteran musher told him to not stress about having the perfect race schedule, to trust himself and trust the dogs. He said he knows he has an excellent dog team, but he’s not planning to run at the front of the pack — at least not this year.
“I got a Lamborghini to work with and I’m really excited about it, but I’m not going to be driving down the Autobahn at 200 miles an hour, I’ll tell you that much,” Underwood said.
On Sunday morning, Underwood and his 14-dog Lamborghini left the starting line in Willow. His mom booked a last-minute flight to Alaska to see him off. By Tuesday afternoon, Underwood and the team had made it about 200 miles down the trail.