It's only been one year since 100 American athletes first lined up to skate down an obstacle-filled track at up to 50 mph in Saint Paul, and despite some of those nerve-wracking early runs, the US has quickly become a world power in Red Bull Crashed Ice.
Despite having far less experience than the established nations like Canada, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, Cameron Naasz claimed a podium at Niagara Falls last month -- the best result to date for a US skater -- with a first victory surely not far away.
American athletes and fans of the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship have embraced the rough-and-tumble sport that touches the American psyche because it combines speed and power with great physicality.
In the 12 short months since last year’s Red Bull Crashed Ice race in Saint Paul -- the first in the United States since 2004 -- ice cross downhill has become a popular winter sport and features on many TV broadcasts, including NBC's Red Bull Signature Series.
“Americans definitely love the action, the aggressiveness and intensity,” said Naasz, whose background in hockey, inline skating and mountain biking has helped propel him to the top of the sport after just five races.
“Americans don’t have as much experience in this sport as a lot of other countries, but we’re getting experience now. Everyone knows about it now and everyone wants to do it and do well in it. We’re getting more confidence all the time.”
They have trained on frozen lakes... getting used to high speeds by being pulled at 50 mph behind four-wheel-drive trucks...
Confidence is indeed a key ingredient for success for any ice cross downhill athlete -- they must barrel down curve- and obstacle-filled ice tracks lined by tens of thousands of spectators in freezing cold temperatures at speeds of up to 50 mph, all while trying to find the best lines on the track and keeping three other racers at bay.
“Confidence is something that Americans seem to have huge amounts of,” said Red Bull Crashed Ice sporting director Christian Papillon, a native of Canada. “Sometimes it’s a bit too much confidence. But in a sport like this it’s not a bad thing to have lots of confidence.
"It’s a big mental game. First you need to be able to physically ride the track, and a lot of people can do that. But then you need to think and believe that you are going to be faster than the other guys. The Americans are good at that.”
A year ago Naasz was the top American in the field -- with a lowly 26th-place finish. Now the Minnesota native (currently second in the 2013 World Championship) along with Andrew Bergeson (23rd), Danny Bergeson (26th), Brian Schack (28th) and Tigh Isaac (35th) have established themselves as solid internationals who are within striking distance of the podium and maybe even that first star-spangled banner victory.
“Will the US ever beat Canada in this sport?" said Schack, 26, who won the National Shoot Out on Thursday and got a 28th in his third career race in Niagara in December. " I don’t know how long it’ll take but I’m sure we can match them one day. It’s still relatively new to the US while the Canadians have been doing it for so long. Americans love physical stuff like this.”
Schack, once a popular University of Minnesota hockey player, fell in love with Red Bull Crashed Ice a year ago when he watched the Saint Paul race. After that, the giant, standing 6-foot, 4-inches tall and weighing 225 pounds, travelled halfway across the continent to Quebec to try out there as a walk-on and got to the round of 64. In Niagara he again showed up as a walk-on. His goal is to make it to the round of 16 in his hometown on Saturday.
Team USA coach Charlie Wasley said hard work and the growing popularity of the sport have helped make the Americans suddenly competitive in the five-stop World Championship this year. “I think we’re only one event or so away from winning a race,” said the ex-college hockey player.
“We’ve put a focus on a developmental program. We’ve worked closely together with the international athletes on ideas and how to do things better. And it really helps that the sport is becoming so popular in the US."
The appliance of science has also helped the top American internationals make up for their lack of experience. Wasley revealed that they have trained on frozen lakes with team members getting used to high speeds by being pulled at 50 mph behind four-wheel-drive trucks, waterski-style. They have also studied and analyzed videos of the world’s best, especially Finland’s Arttu Pihlainen, the 2011 champion.
“I don’t want to give away all our secrets,” said Wasley. “But we’ve done slow-motion video analysis of some of the best internationals and superimposed that with our guys. For example, we took Cameron and superimposed one of his races over Arttu’s. We saw Arttu was taking seven quick strides in the same distance at the start where Cameron was taking just three. You stop the video there and see that Arttu is already a stride or two ahead.
"We took a closer look at jumps and bumps and saw how they were taking them and compared them to how we were taking them. We were able to learn a lot.”
See how far Team USA has come this Saturday in Saint Paul -- watch the entire race LIVE on the Red Bull Signature Series site starting at 8:00 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT.
- Watch the Red Bull Crashed Ice Niagara Falls recap on NBC
- Watch the live web stream of Red Bull Crashed Ice Saint Paul on January 26
- All the info you need to attend or watch Red Bull Crashed Ice Saint Paul