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Italian Musher Finishes First Iditarod, Finds Way Home With Coronavirus Shutdown

Imagine completing a harrowing 1,000-mile Iditarod Sled Dog race only to find out you can’t go back home when you’re done. That’s exactly what happened to Italian musher Fabio Berlusconi after he pulled his dog team under the Burled Arch in Nome.

KNOM spoke with Berlusconi about his plans to get back home to a country that’s on lockdown due to the global coronavirus pandemic, weeks after the end of the Iditarod.

On March 22nd, Fabio Berlusconi got some disappointing news at the finish line in Nome.

“The same day that I finished race, I checked my phone and I got an e-mail that my flights to Italy were canceled. Because of course in my area, Northern Italy, the airports were just shut down.”

After battling closed checkpoints, winter storms, and overflow during his first attempt of the Iditarod, rookie musher Fabio Berlusconi found himself figuring out his next adventure: getting home.

As a musher, he had to prioritize his four-legged team members. Berlusconi ran the Iditarod with dogs from Linwood Fiedler’s kennel, so they didn’t have quite as far a journey waiting for them as Berlusconi. The dogs just had to get to Willow.  

“At least they got home to Willow so they were all home and happy and safe and sound.”

So, Berlusconi stayed in Willow too, spending about three weeks running dogs for fun and trying to figure out how to get back to a country that isn’t allowing anyone in or out. But the clock was ticking, Berlusconi is only allowed to be in the United States until mid-April, when his six-month visa expires.

As an Italian national returning home from the United States, Berlusconi is allowed to come back to Italy. But due to travel restrictions, most airlines and rail companies have temporarily suspended operations into the country. So, after navigating a very circuitous route and learning the travel regulations around Europe, Fabio Berlusconi finally found a way home.

The first step Berlusconi says, he would fly to Zurich, in Switzerland, which borders Italy to the north.

“And from there, I can take a three-hour train that takes me to the Italian border to the last station. And then from there I can cross the border by foot…My father is picking me up but [he] cannot cross the border and drive those last 500 meters to come pick me up at the train station, which is kind of hilarious.”

And matching up flights and trains was also part of the tricky equation. If he were to get stuck in Switzerland, Berlusconi would run the risk of having to self-quarantine there for 14 days.

But when Berlusconi spoke to KNOM about his plans, he was optimistic and mostly just concerned about the weather.

“I’m going to have four bags with me so I’m going to be pretty loaded, so I’ll be quite glad if it’s not raining and making things even harder!”

And of course, once he reaches Italy, he will be under quarantine with the rest of his family, who Berlusconi says have managed to stay healthy throughout the pandemic.

“My parents are retired so they have an easy time just staying home and trying to stay out of trouble.”

It’s taken the efforts of many people from around the world to get Berlusconi even this far.

He bought the round-trip ticket from Italy to Alaska last year, before coming to the Last Frontier for his training. But that meant he had “timed-out” of the airline’s cancelation window to get a refund for his airfare.

The musher found himself running short on funds to get home and on a tourist visa that was nearly expired. His friends quickly stepped into crowdsource funds and call-in favors with their connections to help him out.

Berlusconi says he’s been humbled by all of the people who have helped him in this unexpected turn of events.

“It’s been amazing how many people reached out and wanted to help me. I also started thinking that maybe people really wanted to have me gone from Alaska, but I hope not! I hope it’s just that they were trying to be nice!”

The hassle paid off. On Thursday April 9th, he finally crossed the Italian border.  

As for mushing, Berlusconi finished 30th in his first Iditarod, but he doesn’t have firm plans of when and where he’ll get back to the sport.

Image at top: Musher Fabio Berlusconi beneath the burled arch in Nome. Photo from Kailyn Davis, used with permission.

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