ANCHORAGE (AP) — George Attla Jr., known as the “Huslia Hustler,” was an unmatched sprint racing champion and one of Alaska’s most decorated mushers.
He died Sunday at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. He was 81 years old.
Members of Attla’s family confirmed that he passed away Sunday evening. He had been diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma just more than a week ago.
“It (happened) really quickly,” his grandniece Angela Gonzalez told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
“May my Dad rest in peace,” Amanda Attla wrote on her Facebook page Sunday evening, according to Alaska Dispatch News. “He’s at his happy hunting grounds. There’s a party going on up there. Right after he passed the biggest shooting star came down. He made it. My mom told me so.”
Attla was widely considered the best sprint sled dog racer to ever compete.
He captivated fans with his underdog story. He suffered tuberculosis as a boy, spending much of his childhood in the hospital, where they straightened and fused his knee. He refused to let that keep him from racing competitively, instead turning it into his trademark.
When he made his debut in the Fur Rendezvous at the age of 25, spectators made note of him as the unknown musher from Huslia with the fused leg.
Alaska Dispatch News reports Attla captured 10 Fur Rendezvous World Championship titles and eight North American Open Championship titles.
Throughout his life, Attla faced down numerous setbacks to his health, always finding a way to get back on the sled.
He had open heart surgery in 2008, and he had hip replacement surgery in 2009.
But after he was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma, he declined to undergo chemotherapy treatment.
“They pretty much told us it was terminal,” Gonzalez said.
In one of his final interviews, Attla earlier this month said he was building a cabin in Huslia last fall when the effects of the cancer made it impossible to continue the task.
“I got to where I couldn’t move anything,” he said.
Born in 1933 in Interior Alaska, Attla grew into a nearly mythical figure. His story was turned into a movie, “Spirit of the Wind,” which won the 1979 best picture award at the Sundance Film Festival.
He drove his last dog team a year ago, while helping a young Huslia musher named Trevor Henry prepare for the 2014 Arctic Winter Games.
He had a fierce competitive spirit and an intense yet respectful rivalry with Roland “Doc” Lombard.
When Lombard, an East Coast musher who for years was Attla’s chief nemesis, died in 1990, Attla reflected on the inevitable.
“The time gets the best of you,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “You just hold it off as best you can.”