Crashed Ice not as crazy as it looks

Flooding the course
The Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship course is flooded in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. More than 100 skaters from around the world will compete in the ice cross downhill race January 12-14, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

About 200 athletes from around the world will hurl themselves down a frozen track in St. Paul over the next three days. It's like a bobsled race, except the competitors will be on ice skates. So are these people crazy?

The skaters — almost all of them men — go careening down steep slopes, over jumps and around hairpin turns. They can hit 40 miles per hour, if they don't wipe out first.

The city is hosting the first event in the 2012 Red Bull Crashed Ice World Championship on Friday. The track starts next to the St. Paul Cathedral and winds down the steepest part of the hill ending near the Kellogg Boulevard onramp to Interstate 35-E.

Looking up at the quarter-mile ice chute he'll be skating today, Ben Grotting exudes confidence.

"That's nothing, man. That's nothing."

Grotting is one of 75 Minnesotans competing in the event. He was the first Alabama native to play Division-1 college hockey. But even in the Crashed Ice qualifying event where he took first place, Grotting has only ever skated on a flat, level sheet of ice. Think that might make him nervous? Think again.

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"You know what," Grotting said. "That's an intimidating ramp. But I've got a feeling the ramp's staring back at me, and it's a little bit more nervous than I am."

The four fastest American skaters from this week's races will be invited to compete at events in Sweden, the Netherlands and Canada later this year as Team U.S.A.

The caffeinated energy drink company Red Bull started the Crashed Ice tournaments just over a decade ago. The company started talks with St. Paul last year to host the U.S. leg of this year's competition.

"When Red Bull approached the city, the first question that I asked them was 'Has anyone been killed doing this?' and thankfully, they said, 'No,' " said Jake Spano, marketing director for St. Paul.

The company publishes short profiles of its top Crashed Ice athletes. Among the top 20 skaters, six say they've broken bones. But it is unclear whether those injuries were sustained skating downhill or just playing hockey, which Spano points out might actually be more dangerous.

"Unlike hockey, where you've got two people who collide or someone who maybe runs somebody into the boards, most of your energy, when you fall or when you collide is really going down the hill. So most of that energy is dissipated when you fall and slide."

Asked if he'd ever considered trying out, Spano responds:

"Uh, no. Not on your life."

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman will skate part of the course this morning, and he says there's nothing crazy about it.

"Well, they have padding. We have helmets and shoulder pads and breezers and all of those things," Coleman said. "I think it's probably a lot more crazy to play men's hockey when you're sixty years old then to go to the Crashed Ice."

But Coleman gets serious when he talks about two Minnesota high school students recently injured playing hockey. Clearly, skating has risks — whether it's in a hockey rink or down the Crashed Ice course. And the mayor says it's important to remember that one can't eliminate risk in life.