JOHN Denver is singing tonight at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. But he's not the main attraction of the evening: Instead, the spotlight will be on Libby Riddles, top Alaskan ``musher'' and the first woman in history to win the daunting 1,135-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She's being honored there as the Women's Sports Foundation's Professional Sportswoman of the Year. ``I never really had any serious sports training,'' confesses Ms. Riddles, who won the Anchorage-to-Nome race in March by driving her team straight into a blinding blizzard while others stayed behind.
After five years of honoring tennis pros such as Martina Navratilova (who won the last three Sportswoman awards), Chris Evert Lloyd, and Tracy Austin, why did the foundation switch to a sport as offbeat as dog-sledding and to a woman as unfamiliar as Riddles?
Riddles is just the type of athlete the foundation hopes will help fuel a growing sports enthusiasm among American women.
Selection committee member Susan True says she voted for Riddles for ``lots of reasons. I admire her willingness to tackle a challenge like that. . . . Then you have to accept the fact, too, that [winning the Iditarod] is something women have not done, and you have to admire her pioneer spirit.''
``Pioneer'' is the word for it.
Riddles moved to Alaska when she was 16 and has lived there for 12 years. Training for her sport comes with the backwoods life style, she says.
``I don't really do that much of anything special. Just the day-to-day handling of the dogs is enough to get yourself in really good shape -- being out in the weather and all. While training with the dogs, we do a lot of actual work -- we haul firewood and haul ice for drinking water for us and the dogs'' -- there's no running water in her house in the town of Teller -- ``and we have [fishing] nets under the ice about 50 miles from here which have to be checked every few days.''
That she doesn't do ``anything special'' to train is rather a modest description, considering the time and effort Riddles puts into her sport. She and her partner jointly own and care for 60 dogs, and they are raising 35 pups, to boot.
Reached at her home by phone before leaving for New York, Riddles explained that serious training will start soon, after the first snow falls. During the early weeks, she says, she'll run the dogs ``shorter miles -- until they're in condition, but after about three weeks we'll start running them up to 50 to 60 miles a day.'' That translates into six to eight hours of concentrated effort at a stretch.
``We don't always run them that far -- we'll run them long miles one day, then cut them back to 35 or so the next,'' she adds. Evenings are often spent patching dog harnesses.
Riddles's next race is early next year. She plans to hop a plane -- with her dogs -- to Minnesota in early January to compete in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race, 430 miles from Duluth to Grand Marais and back, with a winner's purse of $25,000.
``It's a lot of fun to be able to compete and do well in a sport that involves both men and women -- I don't think there are many sports like that where men and women compete on a really equal basis,'' she says.
It's exactly this kind of competition in sports that the Women's Sports Foundation hopes will help women in other aspects of life. Sportswomen tend to become ``more independent, competitive people in our workplace,'' says Eva Auchincloss, the foundation's executive director. ``Women who feel strong and capable are going to be more effective. . . . To be on a team is to learn how to operate in the corporate world.''
The Women's Sports Foundation, organized 10 years ago by such top amateur and professional athletes as Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona, Sheila Young Ochowicz, and Micki King Hogue, relies on memberships and corporate sponsorships to fund its varied programs. Of these programs, says Ms. Auchincloss, the most important is the foundation's toll-free number for anyone needing information on girls' and women's sports.
``We get calls for all sorts of information,'' she explains. ``From how to get involved, to where to buy equipment, to the lone little girl interested in a scholarship.''
The foundation also publishes a monthly magazine, Women's Sports and Fitness, which offers a travel and training program for up-and-coming athletes. It publishes an annual athletic scholarship guide and gives more than 100 sports-camp scholarships to young women each year.
``What we're trying to do as an organization is to mainstream sports for girls and women in our society just as it is for boys and men, and make it a natural part of their upbringing,'' Auchincloss says.
Foundation activities coincide with a definite upswing in women's sports. In 1972, women made up only 7 percent of high school athletes. By 1982, the figure had soared to 35 percent. At the college level, the growth has been even more dramatic. Today, there more than 150,000 female athletes are involved in intercollegiate sports, up from 16,000 in 1972. And in the last year, the Olympic Games -- a barometer for athletic progress of all kinds -- has added the women's marathon to its roster.
The foundation's awards program, which includes tonight's presentation, began with the idea of showcasing top-notch athletes to provide role models for young athletes. ``That's the biggest element that has been left out for women and girls -- they haven't been pictured in this way,'' Auchincloss says.
Among the burgeoning ranks of female athletes the foundation singles out a variety for honorary awards each year. Some of these go to promising athletes in the ``up and coming'' category.
The Amateur Sportswoman of the Year, also being presented this evening, goes to Michele Mitchell, a diver from California, who has won nearly every major national and international platform-diving competition during the past year.
As for being named Professional Sportswoman of the Year, Riddles says it ``was pretty unexpected, but I'm real excited about it, and I'm glad that it's helped to give some publicity to the sport in general.'' She's looking forward to her trip to New York. ``I've never been out East at all. The time difference will be difficult, though.'' She pauses, then adds, ``But that will be good race training.''
Spoken as a true sportswoman.