Maxwell Dunne – “I hate being up there at the start”
Ice Cross Downhill speed specialist Maxwell Dunne starts to laugh out loud whenever someone uses the word “fearless” to describe the towering American athlete – who happens to be the owner of the fastest speed ever recorded in the world’s fastest sport on skates: he was clocked at 82 km/h zipping down the Munich track on a rainy evening back in 2016.
The Minnesota man laughs at the “fearless” praise because he has a little secret: He is afraid of heights.
“People think it’s funny when I say this but I’m actually very much afraid of heights and I hate to be up there at the start,” said Dunne, who has nevertheless stormed to the top of the world championship standings in only his second full season on the tour with a series of fearless runs at breakneck speeds down the obstacle-filled ice tracks.
“But I crave the adrenalin when I’m high up there,” says Dunne, who was a little-known figure in the sport last season despite taking seventh overall. “I don’t like walking up the stairs or being near the railing when we’re waiting to start. When I’m at the top of the track before the start, that scares the crap out of me. I don’t like to go up ladders. I’m someone who would rather hold the ladder down on the ground. It’s the instability of heights that scares me. Before the race up in the starting area, my mind always thinks ‘what if someone knocks into you and you flip over’. Then you freak out. Those thoughts hit me all the time.”
Yet Dunne, a substitute teacher in suburban schools south of the twin cities, said that those anxieties instantly disappear once he gets into his starting crouch in the gate at the start of the race. The lamb turns into a lion and he has beaten most of the sport’s elite racers this season to take three straight second place finishes and lead the world championship at the midway point of the season ahead of his home Red Bull Crashed Ice race in Saint Paul.
“Once I’m in the gate, I’m good,” says Dunne, who is from Burnsville, Minnesota and trains throughout the summer off-season with reigning champion Cameron Naasz. “Before that, I think ‘how would I feel if I walked down right now? You’re going to be mad at yourself. You just gotta go down. I just try not to think about the bad things that can happen.”
Only good things have happened this season. Dunne is a ferocious starter, brilliantly using his track and field background as an All-American decathlete at St. Thomas University to bolt out of the gates like the proverbial bat out of hell. With his improbable rise to the top of the charts, he has even struck fear into biggest names of the sport over the last seven years, a star-studded field that includes six former and reigning world champions: Naasz (USA), Scott Croxall (CAN), Marco Dallago (AUT), Derek Wedge (SUI), Kyle Croxall (CAN) and Martin Niefnecker (GER).
He admits he is a bit surprised himself that he is atop the standings, saying he started the season just hoping to get his first career podium for a top-three finish after a career-best fourth place at the season finale at home in Saint Paul last year. He gives Naasz, who won that race and the title, a lot of credit for sharing his training and racing secrets with him in their gruelling workouts together over the last two summers.
“I wouldn’t be in this sport without Cameron,” says Dunne. “I picked up a lot from training with him. We just constantly battle each other. Who can lift more? Who can jump higher? Who can do this drill faster? Or better? He’s given me more tips than anything. He let me train with him and his mindset was he’ll tell anyone what he’s doing because it doesn’t matter to him, he wants to beat you when you’re at your best.”
Naasz returns the compliment to Dunne, saying he has helped him improve his game with the spirited competition. “I definitely don’t regret helping Max get into the sport at all,” said Naasz. “He’s a good training buddy without any obvious weaknesses. He’s a good guy to work out with and he’s a great athlete. There’s no reason not to help him. We bounce ideas off each other all the time. He’s a really hard worker. He’s a great guy to work out with. He’s helped me as well by having that extra motivation. We did a lot this summer together, every day. It’s fun to have a guy there who pushes you.”
Reed Whiting, a former top American racer and now a TV analyst for Ice Cross Downhill, says that Dunne’s track and hockey background have quickly made him a force to contend with. “He’s fearless. He goes all-out every time. He’s always done that but early on he didn’t have the skills. Now he’s got the technical skills and can go all-out without falling. He’s got an athletic ability that exceeds a lot of others and mix that with all the hard rivalry in training with Naasz and it’s quite a combination.”
Unlike most of the other Ice Cross Downhill aces who came to the sport after careers in hockey or downhill winter sports, Dunne brought a completely different athletic background into the sport: decathlon. The track and field events that include 10 individual disciplines from the 100-metre sprint to the shot put has proven to be a valuable launching pad for Dunne, who like all good Minnesotans also played hockey on the state’s myriad frozen ponds. He also did a lot of snowboarding and is convinced that training in individual sports has given him an important advantage in Ice Cross Downhill against all those who come from the team sport hockey.
“I love anything with adrenalin,” he said. “The biggest thing that I did that makes me who I am in this sport today is decathlon. I learned a lot from doing decathlon, that the little things matter so much. Most of the other guys don’t come from racing or individual sports. They came from hockey, where you always have your buddies or someone to back you up. With individual sports, everyone has insecurities and there’s a lot more stress. It’s all on you. The pressure is on you because you’re on your own. I saw that I had an edge with my decathlon background.”
With his teaching degree, Dunne is also a tireless student of the sport of Ice Cross Downhill. He admits to having spent countless hours studying the performances and skating lines of Naasz, Croxall and the rest of the best, always looking for ways to improve and to discover their secrets to success.
He also raced as much as he could in the 2015/16 season, becoming one of only a small handful of athletes to take part in all 10 races. With his Team UNRL teammates, Dunne also reached the final or semi-finals in most of the Red Bull Crashed Ice team competition races last season, which was also precious experience in learning how to master the rough and tumble tactics.
“This is a sport where you need to hit the track as much as you can,” said Dunne. “Cam and Scott had so many races under their belts. They have that experience and if you look closely at the races you can see they’re still a bit better with the race lines they choose. I’m always watching them, watching and learning, soaking everything up. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. That’s the difference between the top guys and the rest. They’re always thinking, thinking about how to take a turn and putting together every piece in practice so you don’t have to think when you go into the race.”