How Cameron Naasz is training to make ice cross history
Tim Naasz has watched the replay of the final at Red Bull Crashed Ice Saint Paul more than 30 times. Although he knows the outcome even as the four racers fly down the icy track, he still suffers the same anxiety he endured while shuffling back and forth near the finish line on February 27.
“Every time I watch it, I’m just as nervous as I was then,” he says.
On that night when the temperature dipped into the 30s, he made the 25-minute drive from his home in Lakeville, Minn., to watch his son, Cameron Naasz, vie for the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship. The elder Naasz was not alone. Besides the reported 100,000 spectators, about 30 friends and family members accompanied him. They hoisted signs with sayings bearing such messages as Cameron Naasz is #1. They all concentrated on the jumbotron and the giant digital clock that ticked down to zero.
Cameron Naasz, 26, stood at the third starting gate in front of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. To his left was Scott Croxall—last year’s world champion. A repeat was in jeopardy. Naasz held first place in the standings before Saint Paul—the final event of the season—but Croxall was within striking distance. Both had advanced through five races to make the final. This race would decide the championship.
An official in a striped referee’s outfit called out, “Riders ready! Five-second warning.”
Naasz stared through his goggles and full-face helmet down at the gate. He focused on anticipating the randomized start. In a sport in which races last less than a minute and are often decided by milliseconds, a fast start is vital.
“I struggle when I get behind early and have to make up ground,” Naasz says. “And if you’re going to beat Scott, you need to get in front right away.”
A Golden Ticket
Four years ago in Saint Paul, Naasz was not concerned about such calculations. He was not in the title race. He had never competed in Crashed Ice and knew little about Ice Cross Downhill—the extreme sport in which racers skate down a walled track filled with jumps, turns, and rollers. Back then, Naasz was a sophomore at St. Cloud State University majoring in Public Relations and working as a technology consultant at OfficeMax. But a few days before the event, Nick Simmons, Naasz’s friend at St. Cloud State and a student brand ambassador for Red Bull, offered Naasz his prospect pass. It was an automatic entry into Crashed Ice.
“I think you’d be really good at this,” Simmons told him.
Naasz calls the pass his “golden ticket.” Although Naasz says he was skeptical about competing and had planned on just “going with friends and having a fun night,” he finished 24th. It was best result by an American. The performance earned him a spot on the U.S. squad for the Crashed Ice World Championship series events in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Canada. He was on plane three weeks later.
“Everything was first-class,” Naasz told The New York Times in 2013. “Every city tried to outdo the last one with bigger parties, better dinners and cooler atmosphere.”
While Naasz enjoyed the travel and experiencing new cultures, he also gained knowledge on the track. He had more of a head start than most. Growing up in Lakeville, Naasz was “always outside” according to his father. Naasz played youth hockey like most kids he knew, but his interest veered to sports that mixed adventure and competition. He raced BMX bikes. He entered progressive inline rollerblading contests. He snowboarded.
“Skating is just one piece of it,” Tim Naasz says of the skills necessary to excel at Ice Cross Downhill. “I have seen over the past three or four years some professional hockey players try the track. They were terrible.”
Cameron Naasz was the opposite. He quickly climbed the ranks. He placed second at Niagara Falls in December 2012. It was his fifth event. Despite Naasz’s continued success over the past three years and his ability to increase America’s presence in a sport previously dominated by racers from Canada, Finland, and Sweden, a world championship still eluded him.
Last summer, Naasz added four to five CrossFit workouts a week to his regimen. Andrew Swanson, a coach at Tangletown Crossfit in Southwest Minneapolis and a Crashed Ice racer, helped develop the plan that focused on explosiveness movements and balance.
They trained together along with fellow racers Maxwell Dunne and Tommy Mertz. In their group text messages, they’d usually agree to meet at the gym by 9:15 am. But then someone would write 9:13, followed by 9:10 and on and on.
Whoever got to Tangletown CrossFit first often announced his arrival triumphantly via Snapchat.
“It has been a lot more grueling,” Naasz says of his routine. “CrossFit works great because it’s intense with small bursts like we have during a race. I used to always be tired at the end of races, so since the summer I tried to beat myself up as much as possible. That way I know I’m ready on race day.”
When Naasz and his training partners were not at the gym doing overhead squats on balance boards or rope swings while standing on yoga balls, they were racing at Pineview Park BMX track on inline skates. Naasz claims it’s the best practice for Crashed Ice. “After one run your legs are shot,” he says. It’s also at Pineview that Swanson says Naasz’s transcendent talent is most evident. One feature of the track is a series of 10 rolling jumps. Previously, everyone had raced over them one at a time. “Why can’t you double them up?” Naasz asked one day in July. Swanson stared at him. He had never even considered that was an option.
On Naasz’s first attempt, he doubled all the rollers. He made it look easy.
“To see Cameron ride things is magical,” Swanson says. “The way he hits certain features makes you just wonder ‘how did he do that?’ ”
Naasz’s other competitors probably asked similar questions throughout this season. He won the first event in Quebec and then next one in Munich. The championship seemed like a foregone conclusion.
But at the third event in Finland, on the longest course in Crashed Ice history, Naasz placed fourth. Croxall won. Saint Paul remained.
King of the Ice
The gate drops and the four racers plunge down onto the course then navigate the first set of jumps. Naasz takes to the air, waving his arms in a rolling down the windows motion to maintain his balance. He’s in the lead. Croxall is so close behind he could touch him. Naasz remains in front through the rollers, through the serpentine turns, through the double-up jumps. But as he approaches the final obstacle, a 90-degree turn and jump called the Volcano, he senses he’s going too fast. He soars too high. He appears to lose control. It looks as if he might fly over the boards.
He doesn’t. He lands clean. On the final straightaway he looks at the jumbotron and sees Croxall “right on my ass.” But Naasz doesn’t need the reminder. He can gauge how close a race is by the sound of the crowd. There’s a roar. Naasz knows he’s not yet in the clear. He digs in the final few strides and stretches out his left skate. He edges Croxall by 1.5 seconds.
The other racers converge on Naasz. They douse him with water, Red Bull, and beer. Croxall joins in. Naasz describes their relationship as a “friendly rivalry.” Croxhall even stayed at Naasz’s house the week before the championship.
“I feel amazing,” Naasz bellows in his post-race interview with an American flag draped over his shoulders. “Let’s go Minesooota!”
With one title under his belt, next season Naasz will try to become the sport’s first back-to-back world champion. He still has one more class to finish at St. Cloud State—Comm. 420: Mass Media and Society—but that pales compared to the full-course load he balanced last year. Naasz knows where the extra time will go. The kid who got cut from his high school’s varsity hockey team his senior year now understands what it’s like to be recognized as the fastest man on ice. He has no plans of letting that feeling slip.
“My goals are to win everything and back-to back world championships,” he says. “If you go into the season and think I want to be fourth or I want to be top eight, that is not a big enough goal.”
But for now, those who know Naasz best relish looking back at what he’s achieved. This past weekend, Tim Naasz watched all the action unfold again on the replay at the request of his mother-in-law. He didn’t mind.
“It’s just exciting to relive it all over again,” the father says. “Watching Cameron win never gets old.”