Minnesota-native Naasz becoming face of Red Bull’s ice cross downhill
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Cameron Naasz sat in the hot tub looking over the Swedish mountains, friends at his side and a 3-foot vessel of bubbly in his hand.
The Lakeville, Minn., native had just ripped his way down a perilous strip of ice with bumps, jumps and obstacles in a matter of seconds. Now, the kid who couldn’t skate well enough to play varsity hockey was schmoozing with the higher-ups from Red Bull and the NBC Sports Network, basking in the afterglow of his ascent toward the top of a fledgling sport called ice cross downhill.
"I was sitting there with a bottle of champagne this big in my hands," Naasz says, holding one hand at mid-chest level and the other above his head. "It was the coolest."
Today, Naasz is sipping coffee in a warming tent tucked up against the Cathedral of St. Paul. He’s dressed in a black Puma fourth-zip with Red Bull’s logo on the left breast and an orange, pom-topped Crashed Ice beanie. The 25-year-old smiles at the prospect of growing the sport that landed him in Are, Sweden that February 2012 day, the one that has him ranked among its top competitors three years later. His nasal, Midwestern twang with a hint of Northern, drawn-out long-O and accented short-A sounds rises with enthusiasm at the prospect of helping turn this from an energy drink’s marketing campaign into a full-blown, highly regarded athletic event.
There’s more than one American face of a race that’s growing in popularity with each turn of the calendar. But if there’s one who embodies Red Bull Crashed Ice’s entire gamut of competition, public relations and extreme sports culture, it’s Naasz.
"If we get guys that are committed to helping the sport grow," Naasz says with determination in his eyes, "it’s going to explode."
Naasz just spent the morning walking the Cathedral’s 1,509.2-feet, temporary ice cross track to start getting a feel for it. After one of several media interviews throughout the next few days, he’ll head over to a massage parlor to get some work done on his back and legs. Once his duties as a Red Bull marketing intern are fulfilled, he’ll get warmed up in the next day’s team competition, then take fourth place in Saturday’s individual finals — the coup de grace of Crashed Ice’s opening 2015 event.
Then he’ll go back to Lakeville. Crash with his parents till the next race, Feb. 5-7 in Helsinki, Finland. Get in some work with his personal trainer at Lifetime Fitness, one of several organizations sponsoring him for this particular circuit. Check in with his professor at St. Cloud State and fill out the latest requirements for his internship.
After Red Bull’s first World Championship race in St. Paul — the fourth straight year Crashed Ice has rolled through town — and an auxiliary event Naasz helped organize the previous weekend at Afton Alps, he ranks third in the action sport’s early standings. He remains the only American to win an individual event, and no other Yank has more top-three finishes (five) than Naasz since he got his start in 2012.
According to event organizers, a record 140,000 people came to watch Naasz finish fourth Saturday. Thousands more watched FOX’s re-airing of Crashed Ice the next day.
The sport is growing. And Naasz is in the center of it.
Naasz was born Dec. 10, 1989 and spent his entire childhood in Lakeville. His father, Tim Naasz, works as a business manager at Jeff Belzer’s car lot in Lakeville. His mother, Brenda, is an accountant.
When their only son was growing up, mom owned a Burnsville skate park called G-Shock. When Cameron wasn’t there on his rollerblades, he was either wakeboarding, snowboarding, lacing up his hockey skates or doing something else that allowed him to glide, fly or both.
"He’s always been a daredevil," Brenda said.
"I pretty much lived there," Cameron said of his mom’s now-defunct skate park, "before hockey took priority."
Naasz began slapping the puck around when he was 5 years old, but despite a strong stride and decent fundamentals, he didn’t crack the varsity roster at Lakeville South. That meant four years of Junior Gold hockey that included a state championship in 2008. He then enrolled at St. Cloud State to major in public relations.
Then one day in 2012, a former hockey teammate and snowboarding buddy by the name of Nick Simmons handed Naasz something called a "Prospect Pass."
I wasn’t surprised that (Cameron) wanted to do it. The surprise was that I’d never heard of Crashed Ice before, and then what came about after that.
Simmons was working for Red Bull as a student brand manager at St. Cloud State. This was Naasz’s formal invitation to try his hand — and feet, and legs, and core, and back — at Crashed Ice in St. Paul.
Other than some YouTube clips he’d happened across, Naasz didn’t know much about it. His mom didn’t, either.
"I was planning on just going and watching and having some drinks or whatever, and he convinced me to do it," Cameron said.
Said Brenda: "It just sounded like a weekend of fun, then life would get back to normal."
Naasz was a natural, even though he felt like a "baby deer" the first time he went down the Cathedral course during time trials. He finished 24th out of a 154-person field in St. Paul, then placed 21st in Valkenburg, Netherlands, 15th in Are, and 65th in Quebec City, Canada. His 25th overall world ranking earned him the circuit’s "mini rookie" award handed out to the best newcomer.
"Then," Naasz said, "I stuck with it."
He started spreading out his credits at St. Cloud State in order to train and compete. Recently, he quit his job at OfficeMax.
In 2013, Naasz finished Crashed Ice’s five-race international tour ranked third in the world, including his inaugural victory March 2, 2013 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Last year, he came in third again.
"I’m definitely starting to feel like a veteran, just by doing it a few times," said Naasz, who had problems with his skates and couldn’t rebound from a crash into the wall early in Saturday’s finals race. "You don’t really get those nerves anymore; I know what I’m walking into every time I do it."
Since its 2001 inception, Red Bull’s ice cross downhill competition has been dominated by Canadians, Swiss and Austrians. Saturday, Canada’s Kyle Croxall and Dean Moriarity finished first and second, respectively.
Naasz is an outlier.
Naasz sat in the passenger seat of the Sno-Cat, telling its driver where to push the snow as they carved out a path down one of Afton’s ski slopes.
Before winning the "Riders Cup" race — one of four ice cross downhill events added to Red Bull’s World Championship extravaganzas — Naasz helped friend and Rochester native Reed Whiting build the course and organize the entire weekend. It helped this year’s Crashed Ice season move from four races last year to eight this winter, a necessary step for the competition to keep evolving, according to Naasz.
"I think there needs to be more races on ski hills, just because of budget," said Naasz, who would like to see a day when competitors race year-round and earn enough sponsorship money to produce revenue — currently, he and the top ice cross athletes are lucky if they break even. "When you look at a race like (St. Paul’s), it’s so expensive and it’s so huge. The spectacle is unbelievable, but it needs to be smaller-scale. The track we built at Afton was similar to this; it was similar in length, similar in difficulty, and if we can do that — I think the only thing we were missing was boards — it’d be the exact same thing as this."
He’s not the only American — or Minnesotan — on that page. Whiting was the brains behind the Afton event. Just Saturday, New Prague’s Dan Witty reached the individual finals and finished one spot ahead of Naasz.
As for the face of American ice cross downhill himself, he plans to keep plowing down tracks the world over until he no longer can with the best of them. "I’d love to do it for a while," said Naasz, who’s on track to graduate from St. Cloud State this fall. "I bet I can compete, like actually . . . able to win — I don’t want to do it if I’m not going to be able to win, you know? — probably another two, maybe three years. And then you’ve got to hang it up at some point."
Naasz says his connections via his Red Bull internship should keep him close to the sport. He could see himself managing a permanent track someday, or coaching the next generation of America’s edgy ice skaters with a knack for nuttiness.
That’s down the road. Naasz has races in Finland, Northern Ireland, Edmonton, Austria and Quebec City still ahead on this years’ expanded slate. Ice cross downhill proponents would love to someday see the competition gain X-Games-level popularity, perhaps even work its way onto the Olympics playbill.
In any case, the scope of Crashed Ice in the United States changed forever when Simmons handed over that golden ticket.
"I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to do it," Brenda Naasz said. "The surprise was that I’d never heard of Crashed Ice before, and then what came about after that."
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