Red Bull Crashed Ice returns to St. Paul

TONY LIBERA | Updated 1/30/2013

The extreme sport of downhill ice cross comes back to the Cathedral on Saturday.

Tigh Isaac in the qualifying round for last year’s Red Bull Crashed Ice.

The Cathedral of St. Paul has always appeared spectral in the gray light of winter months. But last January that changed, as 130,000 people braved the biting Minnesota cold to watch 160 lunatics speed down the twists and jumps of a 1,300-foot ice course at Red Bull’s Crashed Ice World Championship.

This year’s event, which runs Thursday through Saturday on Cathedral Hill, should prove even more manic, with a higher starting ramp for increased speeds, revamped obstacles and 200 competitors hardened by more vigorous, year-round training methods. *

Praised for its speed and aggressiveness, the fledgling extreme sport of ice cross downhill — where competitors skate four at a time at speeds of about 40 miles per hour — has rocketed into cultural consciousness over the past decade. What began as a single competition at a Stockholm fish market in 2001 has since evolved into an international, five-stop tour (St. Paul marks the second stop of the 2012-13 championships). Competitors hail from around the globe, but it comes as no surprise that the world’s colder climates have produced the sport’s finest athletes.

However, while the Canadians and Scandinavians excel, Americans find themselves struggling to keep up. No American has ever won a championship.

Team USA coach Charlie Wasley, an Edina native and former Gophers hockey player, attributed this shortfall to the sport’s relative infancy in the United States.

“The reason why the U.S. hasn’t done well in the past is there haven’t been opportunities for U.S. athletes to participate. They haven’t been exposed to the sport,” Wasley said. “The other important thing we haven’t got yet are training facilities like in Europe, where they have tracks built that are around all winter for guys to train on.”

In lieu of said facilities, Wasley has resorted to some unorthodox, Balboa-esque methods. A typical preparation includes high-speed winch training, where coaches lay down obstacles along a sheet of bandy ice and then pull skaters through at speeds upwards of 50 mph.

While not ideal, the winch tactic, along with a more extensive training regimen, has already proven effective. In the opening event of the season last month at Niagara Falls, Ontario, Lakeville’s own Cameron Naasz — winner of last year’s Mini Rookie Award for Crashed Ice — finished second, the best an American has ever placed.

Naasz, a 23-year-old student at St. Cloud State University, was introduced to the sport only a year ago, when his girlfriend suggested they attend the St. Paul event as spectators. By chance, a friend at Red Bull landed him a “prospect pass” — a golden ticket that circumvented race qualifiers. And before he knew it, Naasz, whose background consisted of hockey and an array of extreme sports, was competing in his first ice cross downhill event. He placed 24th out of 160 skaters.

For a guy drawn to “anything that’s a little dangerous,” Naasz found Crashed Ice an incomparable rush.

“It’s unlike any sport that there is out there,”Naasz said. “It’s really hard to explain, but that amount of speed and having three other skaters right next to you, going over jumps and through turns—it’s exhilarating.”

Adding to the rush is the environment itself, not only the difficulties of the course but the sizable crowds packed along its edges.

“As a hockey player, even at the top levels, you might get in front of 20,000 people,” Wasley said. “Here you have 80,000 fans right up against the boards, cheering you on.”

In light of the snowballing awareness of Crashed Ice, both Wasley and Naasz are considering ice cross downhill’s future. While their immediate focus is on this year’s success, consensus is that Olympic consideration is on the horizon. Ice cross downhill falls neatly in line with other Winter Olympic events, and Red Bull has already secured television interest through a deal with NBC.