Four skaters line up next to each other. Once the gates open, it's a slippery free-for-all.
The skaters race down the 45-degree start ramp, trying to find an edge. They hustle up hills and swing around banked turns. Drops and big-air jumps invade their path, yet they still jockey for position. Some wipe out, while others reach speeds of 40 mph along the 430-meter course.
Welcome to Red Bull Crashed Ice, aka the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship. Athletes from all over the world, including two from the Chicago area, will gather in St. Paul, Minn., this week to compete in one leg of the sport, which combines hockey and downhill skiing.
If you've seen snowboard or ski cross at the Sochi Olympics, that will paint a good picture of what this combination of hockey and downhill skiing is about. Now imagine that on ice, with skaters in full hockey gear, and you're on the right track.
"Within 10 years I think it will be an Olympic event," Logan Square resident Pete Majkozak said. "These are topnotch guys, world-class athletes."
Majkozak, 27, will compete in the St. Paul Crashed Ice race for the second straight year. Also in the mix is 27-year-old Christian Grunnah of Evanston, competing for the first time.
Majkozak played hockey at Iowa State and later overseas. He currently plays in a recreational league when he isn't at his day job at Coyote Logistics.
Grunnah also went to college to play hockey but ended up spending more time in theater. A year and a half ago, he moved to Evanston with his wife and now coaches three hockey teams while auditioning for commercials.
Both athletes gave RedEye a glimpse of what make ice cross downhill a potential game-changer.
With six turns, a 40-meter drop, obstacles and three other skaters racing to beat you, crashes are practically inevitable.
"I saw a couple bad injuries last year," Majkozak said. "I saw a guy who didn't clear a double jump and blew out his knee. It's an eye opener. You try to go as fast as you can. It's a tough course with a lot of jumps. You try to stay vertical."
Despite the competitive nature of the sport, a lot of the skaters cheer on one another behind the scenes.
"I stayed in touch with a lot of the competitors from last year," Majkozak said. "We were in the same hotel, and I was around them a lot. We're all super supportive and encouraging everyone else."
"I've wanted to do it for so long, I just never heard how to get involved," Gunner said. "This year I researched a bit more."
There are dangers in ice cross downhill, but Grunnah isn't worried about those. Instead, he thrives on the rush.
"It's exciting," he said. "My dad also was a race car driver and I drove race cars myself. We're adrenaline junkies. I skied as a kid when I lived in Colorado for a time. I was one of those kids that tried stuff. … I always wanted to go fast. It's exciting, I like training on the edge and see what I can do, being in shape. I think this sport is so unique. There are elements of skating, luge. It's totally bizarre. It's amazing, hard and so exciting."
Majkozak first heard about the event across the Atlantic Ocean.
"I was playing hockey in Belgium at the time," Majkozak said. "[Red Bull Crashed Ice] had an event in the Netherlands, which is very close. I fell in love with it."
His love for the sport soon turned to addiction after he qualified in 2013.
And after the St. Paul event last year, Majkozak convinced himself it was too demanding to repeat in 2014. At least temporarily.
"It's physically demanding," he said. "Last year after the competition, I said I was done. I said, 'I'm never doing it again.' But on the plane back I was like, 'No, it was a blast, I'm doing it again.'"
WHAT IS ICE CROSS DOWNHILL?
The Red Bull Crashed Ice tour began in Stockholm in 2001 as a trial project for a new sporting event. That first event was assembled amid the city's fish market.
Since then, there have been 28 races in 10 countries.
This year marks the third time the event has come to St. Paul. In the past two years, more than 100,000 people have gathered at the Cathedral of Saint Paul to watch, according to the Crashed Ice website.
The 2014 championship in St. Paul, Minn. will air at 8:30 p.m. Monday on Fox Sports 1.
The number of skaters at each Crashed Ice event varies. There will be 210 in St. Paul, 110 from the U.S. and 100 from other countries.
U.S. athletes can qualify for the event in two ways: at one of the eight qualifiers across the U.S., in which the top 100 skaters are chosen for the event; or through the wild card program, in which 10 U.S. athletes are selected through video submissions.
The field of 210 total athletes in St. Paul will be cut to 64 through time trials Feb. 20 and 21. The 64 fastest will compete in the final round Feb. 22.
The top eight finishers will earn cash prizes. The results of the event count toward the world standings as well as the chance to compete on Team USA. Participants on Team USA must rank in the top 64 world standings of all Red Bull Crashed Ice athletes.
The event in St. Paul marks the second stop on the 2014 Red Bull Crushed Ice tour. The tour has already stopped at Helsinki, Finland. Moscow and Quebec City, Quebec, are the remaining sites after St. Paul.
When the season is complete, prize money will be awarded to the highest-ranking athletes.
Source: Charlie Wasley, Team USA coach
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