Growing up in a state like Minnesota with its 10,000 lakes that freeze solid during those long northern winter months, Ice Cross Downhill World Champion Cameron Naasz was just another face in the crowd as a high school hockey player. One of more than 10,000 athletes who played the most popular sport in the region on his school team, Naasz certainly had talent in a game that is so incredibly popular in frosty parts of the United States. But unfortunately he did not have a whole lot of drive as a 17-year-old. Things had always seemed to come easy to the gifted athlete and he never really had to apply himself at anything to do well enough to get by.
The shock of being dropped from his school’s team just before his senior year left lasting scares on the dashing young Naasz. But he learned an important lesson in life: focus, dedication and hard work are needed in this world to be able to turn raw talent into something special. His belated athletic awakening turned his life around after high school as he turned into the most successful Ice Cross Downhill racer of his generation.
Naasz’s inspiring story as a late bloomer and his indefatigable year-round drive to excel has also helped shape the sport itself and especially the way the top racers train – literally taking Red Bull Crashed Ice to the next level to the delight of the growing fan base.
That the athlete with jet-black hair and teeth white enough for a toothpaste ad also looks and sounds just like a star athlete sent over from central casting has surely also helped the sport grow in popularity across the United States and around the world.
“I’d always had some success in any sport I tried my hand at, but I was never really focused,” admits Naasz, who won the 2016 title and is attempting to become the first athlete ever to win the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship two years in a row. “Hockey was the sport I dedicated myself to the most but I was never really committed to hockey alone. I was always distracted and the coaches took note of it. I ended up being cut from my high school hockey team. That was a surprise to a lot of people, especially me. I quit playing after that.”
His talent might have been lost to the world forever had he not, by chance, happen to stumble upon the sport of Ice Cross Downhill with the first Red Bull Crashed Ice race held not far from his home town in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 2012. On a lark and with encouragement from a friend, Naasz pulled his hockey skates out of a closet, dusted them off, and gave the world’s fastest sport on skates a whirl.
“At the time, I had put competitive sports behind me and I didn’t know how I’d handle the intensity of the racing,” said Naasz, who has since won seven of the last 22 Red Bull Crashed Ice races – more than anyone else in the last five seasons – and can clinch his second straight title at the season finale in Ottawa, Canada, on March 4.
“I was excited when I first saw the track and knew I could handle the whole course, but wasn’t sure how to get it done fast. I was able to get down the track just fine but realised how out of shape I was.”
He made it to the round of 32 and took 24th place overall in that first wobbly and nerve-filled race down the ice track in front of the famous Saint Paul Cathedral, an impressive enough performance for a newcomer that earned him the rookie of the race award.
The taste of success as a 22-year-old neophyte in front of many thousands spectators got him hooked on the sport, in which four athletes at a time race down the steep obstacle-filled ice tracks of between 350 and 600 meters in length at speeds of up to 80kph in a wild dash to the finish in the hope of qualifying to advance to the next round by finishing first or second. Naasz ended up 25th overall that first season with his best result – 15th place – coming in Åre, Sweden.
“It was after my first season of Red Bull Crashed Ice that I started feeling that competitive fire and started making it my main focus,” said Naasz, who was a college student at the time and able to train hard through the off-season between part-time jobs leading into the 2012/13 season. “That’s when I started making it my main focus. Ever since, I’ve made it a top priority and worked hard.”
A college student at the time, Naasz managed to use a summer’s worth of punishing training in the off-season to surprise many of the more experienced elite racers from Canada and Finland who had dominated the sport at the time.
Americans hadn’t figured in the top 10 or even top 25 before Naasz’s breakout season in 2013 and he was actually leading the championship going into the season finale in Quebec City.
Naasz also studied the moves and runs of the top races at the time, such as Canada’s Kyle Croxall, Finland’s Arttu Pihlainen, Switzerland’s Derek Wedge and Kyle’s younger brother Scott – who has become his main rival over the last three seasons. “I was watching Scott skate that whole first weekend because I loved his style and the way he attacked the track,” says Naasz. “I wanted to try to learn a thing or two from him. After the race, I met him during the press conference for the first time and he was just a great guy. He complimented me on my racing. It was an awesome sporting moment for me and I’ve looked up to the way he handles himself on and off the ice ever since.”
But in those early days of the sport, Naasz felt overwhelmed by the pressure. At the end of his first second season on the world tour, he’d fallen from first to third overall behind Derek Wedge of Switzerland and Kyle Croxall of Canada, even though he went to Quebec with a chance to win the title.
“Since I wasn’t expected to do well, there was no pressure on me all year and I was just out there having fun and racing,” says Naasz. “When I got to the race in Quebec, I was overwhelmed by media requests, pressure from other athletes, and I just folded. I didn’t have the support system then that I have now and I just couldn’t handle the pressure. I made some rookie mistakes out on the track that weekend and ended up going from first to third in the championship. After feeling those kinds of nerves, it gave me an experience that you can only gain by going through it.”
As bitter as that was, it once again helped Naasz to refocus, recalibrate and rededicate his life to something he’d grown so fond of and seemed to excel at with his background in hockey and other sports. He trained extremely hard in that off-season, working up to 40 hours a week throughout the summer in the gym, on ice rinks and on inline skates. His gruelling off-season workouts have since become legendary in the world of Ice Cross Downhill and helped put him on a path to the top. He finished third overall again behind Marco Dallago of Austria and Scott Croxall in 2014, and was second behind Scott Croxall in 2015. He won the 2016 title and is the favourite to repeat in 2017 after winning the Red Bull Crashed Ice race in Marseille, France. He has been on the podium in five straight races.
“I train so hard in the off-season because that’s what it takes to out-work the rest of the athletes,” says Naasz. “If you want to be the best, you have to work harder than everyone else. I’d say my off-season training has played a big role in my success. For me, training not only prepares me physically but also mentally when it comes to race time. Knowing that my body is prepared helps me stay calm in stressful situations because I know I’m ready for the challenge.”
That confidence was on display at the final of the 2016 season. Naasz and Scott Croxall were locked in a tight battle for the title with Croxall, the 2015 champion, eager to become the first to win back-to-back championships. Both made it through the preliminary rounds to the final in front of a frenzied crowd. Naasz had a slim lead in the points yet it boiled down to this: If Croxall finished in front of Naasz in that four-man final, he would have won the title. In one of the most pressure-packed races ever, Naasz led the field from start to finish and just managed to stave off a ferocious last-ditch challenge from Croxall to win the race and the title.
It was a glorious moment for the man who was ignominiously dropped from his high school hockey team. After wilting under the pressure in 2013, Naasz now clearly thrives on it. “I’d love to win back-to-back titles – to be the first to do that,” he says. “I know how hard it is to do with this sport getting so competitive and I want to do it over and over again. I feel confident, but I’m not a guy to look too far ahead. Anything can happen in this sport, so instead of sitting around crunching numbers and thinking about what might be, I’m just sticking to my game plan and enjoying the season.”
Despite so much at stake, his attitude seems to be: Pressure – what pressure? “There’s no more pressure on me now than there has been in the past. I’ve been in the top three fighting for the title for the last five seasons and I’ve seen it all. I’ve had a target on my back since 2013. I’ll just stick to the same plan I’ve had in years past and try to enjoy myself.”