An estimated 140,000 spectators crowded together on slippery, muddy grounds Saturday night to watch as the top Ice Cross Downhill athletes raced for a winning spot in this year’s Red Bull Crashed Ice event in St. Paul.
People were already securing their spots near the boards around 4 p.m. The Crashed Ice finals consisted of the top 64 men and top 16 women Ice Cross Downhill athletes battling for a place on the podium.
Starting at 6:45 p.m., the first heat of the women’s quarterfinals was underway. Before heading into the heats, LaTasha Lee, Red Bull sounds select performer, sang the national anthem.
Standing anywhere near the event that night, one could see the red glow from the fireworks way overhead, and the cheering and banging on the sideboards from the crowd.
After Lee’s performance, the first race got underway. Four athletes from the US, Russia and Finland lined up at the gates. Each athlete took their stance, gripping onto handles or the gate walls, waiting for the gates to open. A roaring crowd stood in front of them. Lights beamed into the sky and a trail of uneven, grooved ice was laid out before them.
“Riders ready,” the referee called out. “Five-second warning.”
Adjusting their skates restlessly, they locked into their stance waiting for the perfect opportunity.
There was a brief silence when suddenly, the gate doors flung open and in seconds the first competitors were on their way over the step-down, moving their way toward the first turn.
This year’s course had a slightly different layout than in previous years. Right at the start, racers sped over a gap, coming down the waving hill to meet a steep drop with another gap. Then, after the first corner, racers met a sharp 180-degree turn, followed by what seemed like rapid waves of ice, a bridge with divots and cut-outs, finishing with the final 90-degree turn and a quick stretch to the finish line.
The women’s quarterfinals heats saw its share of spills and crashes in the early sections of the track, after the initial hill and around the first corner.
Backing up the first heat, the second set of women’s racers took their place at the gates. After the top 16 racers sped through their heats, the quarterfinals concluded with its first and second place winners advancing onto the next bracket. After finishing up, the men’s round of 64 started around 7:30 p.m.
If people came to see crashes and high-speed skating, they saw it. One after another, racers took their chances at keeping their skates underneath them, while they battled the constantly leveling and raising, grooved and rugged ice.
Much like the women’s races, the men’s heats saw skates catch ice, wobbly footing and unexpected falls, especially over the rapid bumps and down the college bridge.
As the heats continued into the round of 32 and the quarterfinals, those spills and snags weighed heavier than ever on the racers; it determined who went on, and who “crashed out”.
Cameron Naasz, St. Cloud native and SCSU public relations major, navigated his way out of a potentially defeating situation in the quarterfinals.
Facing off against Marco Dallago, 2014 World Champion from Austria, Miikka Joukinmainen, Finland, and Derek Wedge, Switzerland, Naasz said he had a decent start but wasn’t able to hold a strong lead during the heat.
“It was a tough heat; I had an okay start,” Naasz said. “Everybody kind of piled up.”
Falling into third place during the run, Naasz had only seconds to find a way to shoot himself to an advancing position. Naasz said that he trained hard during the off-season, making sure he focused on carrying out momentum, keeping his skates on the ice and staying low. After clearing the step-down, Naasz said he managed to get a good pump, allowing him to take the momentum he wanted to the final corner and over the finish line to secure himself a spot in the finals.
“I was pretty fired up.”
Getting wrapped up with the men’s quarterfinals, women’s finals brought out Salla Kyhala, Finland, coming out of the gate with a strong lead, and held it through the finish line, taking home first place for the women’s finals. She was followed by Jacqueline Legere, Canada, taking home second, and Tamara Kajah, Canada, bring in third, respectively.
“Every time you’re up there you get super pumped, and I love that feeling,” Kyhala said. “It was an amazing atmosphere today; I loved it.”
The men’s semi-finals ended with Naasz at the gate, along with Dean Moriarity, Canada, Dan Witty, USA, and Kyle Croxall, Canada, for the men’s final heat.
Moriarity showed his speed in all of his heats, and his ability holds it by running through the track at a smoothly. Croxall, much like Naasz and Witty, kept low and kept the momentum going throughout his races.
The same as before, each of the racers lined up at the gates. Taking their stance and finding their positioning, they waited for the referee.
Skates shifting, gloves gripping onto the handles, they waited at the gates.
Just then, the gates flew open and out went Croxall, securing the first position after coming through the first turn, with Moriarity on his heels, followed by Naasz and Witty.
Croxall kept grounded and held his position consistently throughout the race, taking turns confidently, with Moriarity following his tracks. Naasz saw complications during his race, eventually slamming into the sides a few times, while Witty snuck by, passing Naasz.
Croxall came through the last cornered and crossed over the finish line, taking home first place title. Moriarity brought in second, with Witty at third and Naasz at fourth, respectively.
Croxall said afterward that he “just kept [his] head up.” He spent the summer training and getting his legs in shape for the event. Having raced in the Red Bull’s Crashed Ice event, this was Croxall’s third winning title at St. Paul, with the first won in 2012. Croxall said that having a great start out of the gate helped build the momentum he needed to come into the first corner, which he then carried to the finish line, taking home the win.
“The finals were tough,” Naasz said. On his way to the starting gates, Naasz found he had a broken skate guard. After walking on his skates from place to place, he didn’t have much of an edge either, which took away that turning power and caused those slams, he said.
Despite the trouble with his skate guard, Naasz thought he skated well, he said.
“I’m looking forward to new tracks,” he continued. “There’s going to be a couple races that are going to be really long but flat and straight…if I can use my advantage, which is the quick start, I can jump out of the gate, and as long as I pin it, I shouldn’t have trouble with these tracks.”
This article originally appeared in the University Chronicle on January 26, 2015.