By Joseph Robertia
Unloading excited sled dogs, harnessing them and preparing her sled and lines, MyDzung (pronounced May-Yoom) Osmar looked a lot like any other musher in this year’s running of the Tustumena 200/100 Sled Dog Race.
But unlike many of the other mushers in this year’s event, who have spent years living in the frozen North and an equal amount of time around their canine companions, it was only within the last two years that MyDzung had seen snow for the first time and first heard of Alaska’s state sport of mushing.
“In Vietnam, the dogs are much different,” she said with a thick Asian accent.
Until she came to Alaska in the summer of 2011, the only dogs she knew had little in common with the perpetually enthusiastic sled dogs. The dogs around her home — in Ninh Hoa, about 400 miles south of Saigon — were much smaller and kept largely as an alarm to warn of anyone or thing that may come to steal ducks or chickens, and the stray dogs in town were not to be approached for fear of being bitten.
“I was scared when I first saw all the sled dogs. There were just so many of them and they were so excited,” she said.
MyDzung was introduced to the dogs by her husband, Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champion and founder of the Tustumena 200. Grieving following the death of his previous wife in a winter car crash, Osmar began traveling. While on vacation in Vietnam, he met MyDzung and continued a long-distance relationship for several years.
Communicating via the Internet until he could make annual visits to see her between the commercial fishing and mushing seasons, their relationship grew until she finally came to Alaska two years ago and married him.
“I was very cold,” she said, remembering her summer arrival, and it wasn’t long afterward that the seasons changed and the mercury dropped further, making her even colder.
“We begin training the dogs with four-wheelers in fall, so that was great for her because she got to see how it all worked, and there’s more control on the four-wheeler and you can stop them much easier,” Dean said.
Day in and day out, her life, like her husband’s, began to revolve around a never-ending series of dog chores and dog training, and MyDzung took to it well. The tasks were different from anything she ever knew, but she was no stranger to working hard back in Vietnam.
As fall gave way to winter, MyDzung made the switch over to running dogs by sled. She rode in the basket a few times to get a feel for the differences, but then began taking her own small teams.
“It was scary again and I crashed lots of times,” she said, remembering those first few runs.
Weighing only 95 pounds, she doesn’t have a lot of weight to offer the dogs for resistance, which her husband said is both a blessing and a curse.
“Her weight is a strength on the uphills because the dogs barely feel her on there,” Dean said. “But on the downhills she’s so light she can’t get a purchase on the break to slow them down.”
MyDzung kept at it, though, and with each run her dog-driving skills got better, so with this being her second winter riding the runners, she and Dean thought it might be time to add her name to a race roster and – with professionally groomed trails and hundreds of trail markers – few races are more beginner friendly than the T100, Dean said.
Initially their plan was for Dean to run the T200 and MyDzung to go solo in the T100, but at the last minute Dean decided to switch to the 100, as well, to ensure that his wife’s first race went successfully.
“She’s very competent, we’ve done a lot of training on the race trail this year, and I’m giving her older, steadier dogs to cause her less troubles, but still it’s 100 miles in the wilderness at night. A storm could come in, a moose could get into the team, or the dogs could just take a wrong turn and try to take her to the cabin we train out of,” Dean said, as to his reason for opting to enter the T100 with her.
On Saturday, before the start of the race, many mushers stripped down in the warm weather. Many were wearing sweatshirts, rather than the usual heavy coats, and going barehanded, rather than wearing mittens. But, MyDzung, still finding the cold her toughest challenge, dressed warmer than most. Her bronze skin and dark eyes were the only exposed skin, peeking out from under a fur hat and above a heavy parka.
Due to her small size, she left with a few less dogs than the maximum number of 10, but she still did well. While the Seavey clan swept the overall competition — with father Mitch winning the T200 and his son, Conway, winning the T100 — MyDzung came in third overall out of roughly a dozen mushers, followed minutes later by Dean, who placed fourth.
“It was a lot different than training. There were a lot of teams and a lot of passing. I caught up to seven of the T200 mushers,” she said.
MyDzung had her share of problems, though. She missed a few turns and had to turn the team around in deep powder without letting them get away. She said she also crashed three times over the course of the race, and was quick to add, “But, I never let go of the sled.”
Not long after getting home from the finish line, she got a call from her parents and other family back in Vietnam who watched the race over the Internet, and kept up with posts about the race on the T200 Facebook page.
“They thought I did really good,” she said, but added that it is tough for them to comprehend just how tough mushing is, and how it all works.
Dean, who has been in, or witnessed, every running of the 29 T200s that have occurred, said that, while there have been numerous nationalities from around the world that have taken part in the event, his wife is the first Vietnamese person to run the T100. He said he also believes no other Vietnamese have run any other sled dog races in the state, either.
“I’ve seen Canadians, British, Swiss, Kiwis, Romanians, Japanese in the T200, but she’s the first Vietnamese, and that’s something to be proud of,” he said. “She has Vietnamese family and friends who live in Anchorage and they think she’s crazy. Most of them work in nail salons and things. They’re not as outdoorsy at all.”