Photo: 11-year-old Olivia Goodenough (above), of Maple Park was packed into the sled in the ceremonial start to the Iditarod race March 3 in Alaska. The Iditarod is a 1,000-mile race starting in Willow and ending in Nome. Olivia traveled with musher Colleen Robertia and her husband. Courtesy Photo
Grandparent gives once-in-a-lifetime gift
by Susan O’Neill
MAPLE PARK—Olivia Goodenough, 11-year old Maple Park resident and Kaneland sixth-grader, is an outdoorsy kind of girl, according to her grandfather, Geneva resident Dennis Goodenough. She hunts deer and coyotes, fishes and can drive a four-wheeler with the best of them. So when Dennis won a chance to ride in a sled in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race held in Alaska each March, he gave the honor to Olivia.
Olivia’s grandparents had taken her and one of her cousins to Alaska last summer to visit Dennis’ sister, Lori Kirker, who lives in Houston, about 65 miles north of Anchorage. Several years earlier, Olivia had talked her great-aunt into getting a puppy that she could call Snowball and say it was hers. Although Olivia loves dogs, her father and brothers are allergic to them, so she can’t have one of her own at home.
When Olivia came to visit last year, she met Snowball for the first time, and it was love at first sight. Olivia had a great time, and Kirker invited her to come back to watch the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile dog-sled race that starts in a town about 60 miles north of Anchorage, and finishes in Nome.
When Olivia arrived at Kirker’s home, she had the chance to drive Kirker’s sled through the Alaskan woods with her four dogs, including Snowball. But that was just a warm-up for the real thing.
Through a charity auction, Dennis won the bid for a seat on Iditarod racer Colleen Robertia’s sled. Called IditaRiders, passengers are strapped into the basket of the musher’s sled for the 12-mile ceremonial race on Saturday, March 3, the day before the actual Iditarod. Olivia met Robertia at a pre-race musher banquet, and was introduced to her dogs the day of the race.
Olivia received instructions on what to do if she fell off the sled.
“She (Robertia) told me not to stick my arms out, because it could break my arm,” Olivia said.
When asked if that scared her, she said no.
“I figured I’d have a pretty good story to tell back at school,” she said with a grin.
Then she climbed into the basket for a thrilling ride. She said there were people all along the race route, cheering them on.
Her family took a shuttle to the end-point to watch them come in, and to their surprise, when Robertia’s sled came into view, Olivia was driving it with Robertia standing behind her.
Kirker said that Robertia must have felt Olivia was up to the challenge. She was the only IditaRider who was given that opportunity.
“She’s so mature for an 11-year-old,” Kirker said.
“She made it around a bunch of holes, and she was standing on the brakes coming into the finish,” her grandfather said.
Meanwhile, the folks at home were watching Olivia on the television at Bootleggers Pizza and Bar in Maple Park, as they ate a festive dinner of caribou stew and reindeer meat.
The next day, at the beginning of the race, Robertia asked Olivia to “be the rabbit.” This entailed running ahead of the dogs to lead them into the starting gate. She was thrilled to do it.
When Olivia came home, the race was well underway. Although the race was likely to last into the second week, Olivia made it home in time to finish her Illinois State Achievement Test. It may be hard to come back down to reality, but the Maple Park girl brought back some great stories to tell.