By Karen Fanning

If last year’s results were any indication of how she’d fare in this year’s Jr. Iditarod, Melissa Owens was in trouble. In 2004, she finished in 13th place. But Sunday morning, the 15-year-old from Nome, Alaska, cast superstitions aside to become the 2005 Jr. Iditarod champion.

“I knew nobody had caught me, and I was going to be the first one across the finish line,” said the 8th-grader, who is eligible to run in the next two Iditarods. “It was a great relief. The dogs did awesome. It was really amazing. It was just awesome.”

Melissa shaved several hours off last year’s running time, completing the race in 24 hours, 51 minutes, and 27 seconds. She crossed the finish line a full 31 minutes ahead of runner-up Rohn Buser.

Like all mushers, Melissa took a mandatory 10-hour layover before starting out on the second leg of the 160-mile trail. After tending to her dogs, she curled up next to them on a bed of straw and caught a couple of hours of sleep.

Back on the trail, Owens competed against a field of 20 other mushers, including the children of some of the biggest names in the Iditarod. There were brothers Rohn and Nikolai Buser, who are the sons of four-time Iditarod champ, Martin Buser. Then, there was Dallas Seavey, whose father, Mitch, won the 2004 Iditarod.

Despite not having a famous last name and losing one of her dogs to an injury on the trail, Melissa triumphed. Her victory earned her a $5,000 scholarship from the University of Alaska College Savings Plan-and the glory of being Jr. Iditarod champ. But Melissa insists her drive to mush is inspired by something else.

“I really enjoy my dogs,” she says. “I’ve raised most of them from puppies. They love to mush, and so do I. We have a great bond.”