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Ann Billington Cassell, ’74, the first-ever Miss Deaf America, has always enjoyed a love for dogs.

As an only child, Cassell remembers her dogs as her best friends. She especially has fond memories of Jasmine, a deaf and blind cocker spaniel that she raised.

And then there was Pawsie, Cassell’s “soul dog.”

One day, while teaching American Sign Language (as a world language) at Lakeville Senior High School (Lakeville, Minnesota), Cassell’s high school students, aware of her affinity for dogs, decided to surprise her by bringing Pawsie to class as a gift.

“Pawsie walked right up to me, rather than being distracted by others in the room, and sat there looking at me as if to say, ‘You are mine.'”

When Pawsie later passed away, a void was left in her household, and her heart. But five years ago, Cassell, while leading an Alaskan land/cruise tour group with her husband, Jack Cassell, ’75, enjoyed a reconnection that would later lead her to an experience of a lifetime.

During the tour’s visit to Juneau, Alaska, she and the group of deaf travelers saw the statue of Patsy Ann, a deaf bull terrier known as “the official greeter of Juneau.” The group also met legendary musher Jeff King during a visit to Husky Homestead in Denali Park, Alaska, where King breeds and trains champion sled dogs. Cassell noticed the respect Alaskans have for their dogs; she felt a “pull” to come back.

Cassell decided to learn about the Iditarod, the famed sled dog race of over 1,000 miles beginning in Anchorage and ending in Nome, a town sitting along the Bering Sea coast. She learned of the IditaRider auction, a fundraiser that allows bidders to earn a seat and ride with a musher and sled dog team during the ceremonial, 11-mile start. She followed the race, and Jeff King, yearly.

King is a four-time Iditarod champion, and in order to ride with this Alaskan favorite, bidders usually have to spend big.

“Every year, she would mention to us when the bidding process began, when it ended, and how much someone paid for Jeff King’s seat,” said Kari Bahl, G- ’05, Cassell’s daughter and a staff interpreter at Gallaudet. “She always talked about her dream to be able to ride with him one day, even though she knew it would be quite impossible given the amount people typically paid to ride in the ceremonial start, and especially with Jeff King, who is a legend.”

Bahl decided to follow the bid for King’s seat for the 2016 IditaRider and saw the amount just before time expired. “Luckily the amount was minimal, so my brother and I decided to jump in and try to win the bid at the last minute.” said Bahl.

She won.

Bahl contacted her mother to give her the news. “At first she didn’t believe us, but after we showed her the confirmation email, she was ecstatic and could not sleep that night! We were also so excited, we could not sleep either!”

For Cassell, this was more than just having a chance to ride with greatness.

“I am very sensitive to how others treat their animals; I loved how Jeff’s dogs adore him and respect him,” said Cassell. “They have a special bond, and that’s why he is my favorite musher. He is a very well-known, respected musher who seems to be one of the media’s favorites.”

The 2016 ceremonial start, held March 5, was shortened from 11 miles to three miles due to a lack of snow and icy conditions.  Still, the experience for Cassell was not diminished.

“We, the riders, were indeed disappointed that it was shortened, but I felt that spending some extra time with Jeff King, his dogs, and his family, made up for the eight miles we missed,” said Cassell.

Along with the ceremonial start, IditaRiders meet their mushers during a luncheon two days prior to the start. Cassell, however, was able to spend more time with King, meeting his family and team at Husky Homestead and attending a Make a Wish Foundation fundraiser hosted by King.

Cassell was able to meet his lead dog. “I was thrilled and honored to have this private meeting with Zig,” said Cassell. “We met the day before the start, and Zig came and sat on my lap to allow me to hug her. I noticed how very strong they are as the dogs are all well-conditioned.”

At a pre-race banquet attended by several thousand people, Cassell drew the number to determine King’s starting position, and with Bahl there to interpret, King introduced Cassell as his IditaRider and the first-ever Miss Deaf America. There, she met Brent Sass, a musher whose deaf uncle that attended the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, and Kristin Bacon, King’s girlfriend and musher competing in her first Iditarod.

During the ceremonial start, friends who watched the event via live streaming noticed that King posed on camera with Cassell, the only musher to do so with an IditaRider. Cassell was interviewed by a reporter from the Alaska Dispatch News, and a photo was taken of Cassell hugging Barnum, one of King’s sled dogs. Her son, Chris Bahl, encouraged King to mount a Go Pro camera on his sled to capture the moment for his mother.

“Being at the ceremonial start was truly electrifying since I was surrounded by energetic dogs of all the mushers who were raring to go!” said Cassell. “I am always looking for any excuse to be around dogs. I truly felt like I was in heaven as I was surrounded by dogs- 86 mushers with 16 dogs each. I was such a happy woman that day!”

During the restart officially starting the race the next day in Willow, Alaska, Cassell gave each dog on King’s team a pep talk and was invited by King to ride behind him to the starting chute.

“Having Ann Cassell share our Iditarod start was a wonderful experience,” said King. “Her bright smile and loving personality put the race off to a calm and caring beginning. What a joy it was to share my passion for my dogs with her and her two adult children. The world is clearly a better place because of her.”

Cassell, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, retired three years ago after a 38-year career teaching ASL and Deaf Culture at various high schools and universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Along with directing Miss Deaf Minnesota and Deaf America pageants, she has volunteered with several deaf community groups, including a current role with Deaf Unity, a state-wide organization serving deaf victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She has studied holistic care for animal companions and hopes to write a book about her relationship with Pawsie and Jasmine.

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