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Maija Doggett's dog "Buddy" crosses the finish line to earn his first Flyball title in 2019. Buddy's collar contains the ashes of his previous owner, Maija's dad, Phil Rhode.

There are nearly 4,000 miles between Maija Doggett’s home in Anchorage, Alaska, and the world’s biggest Flyball tournament in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The CanAm Flyball Classic, run by the North American Flyball Association, is the largest gathering for Flyball — a relay race for dogs. More than 100 teams of four dogs each come to compete from all across the U.S. and Canada. After the 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, the much-anticipated 2021 tournament returns Oct. 8-10.

Maija, a long-time competitor and a NAFA-approved Flyball judge, is making the journey with two of her dogs — “Diva”, a Siberian Husky rescue, and “Busy”, a Portuguese Podengo Pequeno rescue. But despite the excitement of the big weekend, Maija is both reminded of and inspired by those she’s lost: her first Flyball dog, Zoom, and her father, Phil Rhode, both of whom died from cancer within six months of one another.

Phil surrounded by all three of his dogs, including Buddy. “I snapped it about a month before we learned he had cancer,” Maija says. “I thought it was funny that they all suddenly piled on him but in hindsight I realize they knew something was wrong.”

Everyone’s Buddy

In addition to Diva and Busy, there’s Maija’s third and newest dog: Buddy.

Buddy was born deaf and given to Maija’s dad Phil by a local Alaskan musher who thought the black-and-white pup was too small to pull a sled. Originally named Beethoven, Phil quickly changed the sled dog’s name to Buddy — explaining that the dog’s friendliness was his most prominent trait.

Just a year after taking Buddy in, Phil was diagnosed with sudden and severe cancer, requiring a medical evacuation to a hospital in Seattle. Maija stayed in Alaska, caring for Buddy and her father’s other animals while her mother stayed with Phil in Washington. Each time Maija visited her dad, she found him drawing pictures of Buddy, talking about Buddy, and saying things like “I’m never going to see Buddy again.” It broke Maija’s heart.

But five months later, Phil was released to go back to a hospital in Alaska, where Maija and Buddy waited at the airport to greet him.

Over the next few weeks, Buddy and Maija had a few visits to the hospital in Alaska. Each time, the bond between Phil and Buddy burst through.

On February 9, 2018, Maija sat and talked with her dad at the hospital.

“I regret that I never had time training Buddy,” Phil told his daughter. “I always thought he’d be a good sports dog.”

That’s when he asked Maija a question: “Will you make Buddy a Flyball dog?”

That question filled Maija with a renewed sense of hope. She went home and immediately started target training with Buddy. That night, she had visions of giving her dad progress reports about Buddy’s training, and eventually, she dreamed her father could leave the hospital to watch Buddy compete in a tournament.

Maija took this photo of Buddy and her dad not long before her father died. “I got the feeling Dad was saying goodbye to his favorite little buddy – they never saw each other again.”

The next day, Phil died suddenly. Maija was left in shock, with a broken heart and an energetic, deaf dog.

Maija describes herself as loud and verbal. So training a dog who couldn’t hear was a challenge. But over the next couple of years, she had trained Buddy into a wonderful Flyball dog, and eventually transitioned him to her son, Porter. Today, 11-year-old Porter handles Buddy in local competitions.

In the summer of 2019, Buddy crossed the finish line wearing a green and teal collar containing Phil’s ashes and earned his first title — Flyball Dog. Phil’s last wish came true.

It Started With Zoom

Before Buddy and Diva and Busy, there was Zoom. In 2004, Maija rescued a six-month-old Siberian Husky from a local shelter. At the time, Maija was active in Agility competitions, so she knew Zoom would be a great sports dog.

“There was something about him,” Maija says, choking back tears at the memory.

That something about Zoom struck Maija as going beyond Agility. She had heard of a sport called Flyball but didn’t know much about it. She had never even seen it in person, only heard it described. But something inside Maija was calling her to the sport.

Maija sat at her computer one night and typed in “Flyball in Alaska.” As she scrolled down the page, a serendipitous email popped up on her screen from her old Agility instructor, Curtis Smith.

“I’d like to start a Flyball club in Alaska. Would anyone be interested in joining?” the email read.

That is so weird, Maija thought. She immediately responded. “Yes, remember me? I have this puppy now. Let’s get started.”

“I had just heard of it, Googled it, and the answer popped up, but not like Google usually does,” Maija said about that fateful day. At the time, Maija had two other, older dogs — Sparky and Tanner. She trained all three of her dogs but Zoom was by far the most successful.

“Zoom was my Flyball inspiration and I feel like he was my firstborn son,” Maija says. He led a very accomplished Flyball career and is still the No. 1 ranked Siberian Husky in NAFA Flyball (Diva is No. 2). Zoom was the first Siberian to earn the Flyball Grand Champion title.

A Total Diva

In 2009, Maija competed at her first CanAm Flyball Classic tournament with Zoom. It was also the first year the event was held in Indianapolis. That became the beginning of a yearly tradition — flying from Anchorage to Chicago then driving to Indianapolis every October.

Before their CanAm in 2013, Maija set out to find another Siberian Husky. Zoom was getting older, and she wanted to add to her pack. That’s when she found a rescue outside of Chicago with the perfect dog — a Siberian Husky that shared her name — Mya.

Diva (previously named Mya) at an Alaska Dogs Gone Wild Summer Solstice tournament.

“I contacted the rescue in July, told them I’d be there in October and they held her for me and sent me videos. We conducted the entire rescue process remotely.”

One day close to the October CanAm, the rescue sent Maija a picture of Mya (both pronounced the same way). In the photo, the Husky was in a plastic swimming pool, stepping out of it in such a way that she looked like a total diva.

“That’s her name!” Maija said. “Diva!” It worked out, Maija joked, that she didn’t have to change her own name.

Diva runs in Multibreed at CanAm in 2015 (second dog in the left lane).

Tiny Busy’s Big Debut

Maija was used to having bigger dogs like Zoom and Diva — she had always had large dogs. “I thought little dogs were for other people,” she says. But in Flyball, having a height dog is vital. A height dog is the shortest dog on the team. (The jump height of each team is determined by measuring the height of the team’s smallest dog at the withers and subtracting 5 inches.) At Maija’s club, Alaska Dogs Gone Wild, they were having trouble finding enough height dogs. So Maija took it upon herself.

“Alright, fine, I’ll get a little dog,” Maija said.

But finding a suitable small dog for Flyball turned out to be more difficult than she imagined. Maija began working with a rescue in Seattle, inquiring about several dogs. One day, the manager called Maija. She found the perfect little puppy. “This is your flyball dog,” she told Maija.

The Portuguese Podengo Pequeno puppy didn’t look like much to Maija. “That thing’s not even going to be 10 pounds. She’s too little,” Maija said. But one day, she went down to meet the pup and instantly fell in love.

Busy competes as the fourth dog in the left lane at a tournament in Anchorage.

“They were calling her Esmeralda, which was a huge name for such a tiny little dog,” Maija says about picking up the five-pound hound. I’m not going to call you Esmerelda, Maija thought to herself. On the drive back to the Seattle airport with her new puppy, Maija turned to her friend. “I don’t care if she never plays Flyball. I love her,” she said. The next day, she named her Busy.

Both Busy and Diva learned Flyball quickly. In fact, just eight months after coming home with Maija, Diva earned her Flyball Dog title. Busy took just a bit longer.

In September 2017, Busy debuted, earned her first points, and earned her first title. But that achievement was tinged with sadness. Busy’s debut event was meant to be Zoom’s retirement event. Just a week prior, Zoom passed suddenly and unexpectedly from cancer. And just a month earlier, Maija had learned about her dad’s cancer diagnosis.

“Busy’s first tournament was extremely emotional for me,” she says. The tiny dog’s big win was bookended by darker, sadder days.

Diva at an Alaska Dogs Gone Wild Summer Solstice tournament.

Inside Alaska

Competing in Alaska has its own challenges. There are only two active clubs in Maija’s region of Alaska so there is a small population of people and dogs to compete with. Only one indoor facility exists to practice and hold tournaments in during the winter. Then, there’s the weather. Even in the summer, it’s become difficult to predict the sunshine.

That’s why each year, it’s the club’s goal to attend CanAm and at least one other tournament outside of Alaska.

Maija has been to every CanAm since 2009 — other than 2010, the year she had her son, Porter. Although Buddy wasn’t quite ready for CanAm this year, Maija planned to bring Porter and Buddy anyway. But it turned out Porter had a conflict the same weekend, an opportunity to compete in a karate tournament in Minneapolis. So while Busy, Diva, and Maija take on CanAm, 11-year old Porter will be in another competition a few states over. And Buddy will stay in Alaska, perhaps preparing for his CanAm debut in 2022.

“Busy’s my heart. Diva’s my soul.” Maija says. She’s looking forward to being back at the world’s largest flyball tournament after a gap year due to the pandemic. She’s eager to see the clubs and friends she hasn’t seen in two years. She’s excited for the vendors, the shopping, the chaos, and the noise. She’s beyond proud and excited to compete with Busy and Diva. But despite the excitement, she sometimes finds her mind wandering.

She thinks about Zoom, her very first Flyball dog. He’s been gone four years now.

She thinks about her dad, Phil, who dreamed of watching Buddy compete.

She thinks about Buddy, her father’s heart dog. A dog with a body too small to be a sled dog and a heart too big to go by any other name.

Buddy on Flattop Mountain

Each year on the shortest day of winter, Anchorage receives just five hours of sunlight. The sun rises after 10 a.m. and sets before 4 p.m. But by summer, Alaskans are rewarded for their endurance. A wealth of daylight returns and Anchorage is soaked with 19 straight hours of sunlight a day.

On the longest day of the year, Maija and her club, Alaska Dogs Gone Wild, host their annual Summer Solstice Flyball tournament.

The nights — once long and dark — become shorter, brighter, and warmer.

When the sun finally sets for those brief dark hours, after a full day of Flyball, Maija says goodnight to her family and her three dogs.

Diva and Busy rest.

Buddy still looks for Phil.

The Canine Flyball CanAm Classic is coming to your TVs! The nation’s largest Flyball event was held on October 22 in Indianapolis, IN, and premieres on ESPN2 on Sunday, November 5th, at 3pm ET. Don’t miss these speedy dogs in action!