Kelly O’Brien loves ice hockey and isn’t adverse to hanging out at pop-up ice skating rinks in December so she couldn’t resist trying out Red Bull extreme ice skating.
You may have seen the ads on TV – an intimidating ice slope, thousands of people cheering, and a seemingly endless stream of daredevil skaters clad in pads, helmets and expressions of steely determination.
This is Red Bull’s Crashed Ice event, and you’ve never seen anything like it.
Of course, Red Bull is no stranger to extreme sporting events, where adrenaline-junkie participants laugh in the face of danger and willingly insert themselves into all manner of death-defying situations.
The Crashed Ice event was a world series in the winter extreme sporting event of ice cross downhill full-contact, high-speed, downhill ice skating race along a 440 metre track, with steep turns and vertical drops, reaching speeds of up to 60 km/h.
Over 140 competitorswill take part in the race on February 20 and 21 on an assault course, specifically designed for Ireland in front of Stormont Parliament Buildings.
Ireland is the only non-winter sports location to feature on the world tour.
Qualifiers were held in Dublin and Belfast, with participants completing an obstacle course set on an ice rink in the best time possible. If you make the top 20 in either qualifier, you’re through. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
Donning my best bobble hat and my least worn winter mittens, I set my sights on Belfast, ready to tear up the ice at the Odyssey Arena.
As a fan of the local ice hockey team that regularly plays at the Odyssey, hanging around their dressing room getting the pre-qualifier jitters was a surreal experience. Sure, the venue has also played host to the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and One Direction, but this was the home of the Giants. There’s just no topping that.
My awe soon turned to horror as I met some of the other Crashed Ice hopefuls, about 40 of them in full gear, clamouring to get onto the ice. And these were no pasty Irish locals - some had come as far as Germany, Switzerland and Lithuania to try out for the only European qualifier.
It wasn’t long before I realised just how out of my depth I was. I’m not bad going round in circles at the local ice rink every December, and can get away with some sharp turns and a bit of backwards skating, but this was a new different league.
The qualifying track featured high jumps and low ducks, sharp turns and various obstacles to avoid. Undeterred by what I perceived as an impossible course, the other entrants couldn’t wait to get into their practice runs, leaping over bollards and slamming their bodies onto the ice to slide under the half a metre high rails.
While there were many wipeouts, the majority of them were no indication of a lack of skill – some of the more ambitious entrants were simply throwing their inhibitions to the wind in an attempt to get better and better lap times.
But exhibiting such wild abandon is only to be expected, according to former Giants player Graeme Walton from Belfast who was on hand to give the participants some advice on the day.
Walton first started skating at the age of nine at his local rink. But it wasn’t until many years later, when Red Bull asked him to take part in the Crashed Ice event, that he got his big break. Despite having never competed before, Walton managed to come second in the world.
After that, he joined the Belfast Giants and had an extremely successful 10-year career with them – he hung up his skates in 2013.
According to Walton, being a great ice skater and ice hockey player takes a lot more than skill – it takes guts. “To be a good ice hockey player you have to have a bit of everything. You have to have the skating ability of course, but you also have to have the ambition, and being a bit crazy doesn’t hurt either!”
The hockey star, who has been skating since the age of nine, thinks ice hockey is something the Republic of Ireland is missing out on, big time.
“It would be great if there could be an Olympic sized ice rink down there in the future, more people down there could get into it,” he said.
But nonetheless, ticket sales for the Crashed Ice event are selling fast – on both sides of the border.
“I think there’s still a lot of interest in it because it’s such a unique event, it’s really different,” said Walton.
“It’s amazing for Belfast to get such an event. It’s something to be very proud of. It’s a great spectacle.”.
Having spoken to many of the Belfast-based skaters on the day, it was particularly notable how many said they got into the sport purely from growing up near a rink.
They were exposed to ice skating and ice hockey from such a young age that gliding along the frozen water is now as easy for them as it is for a Cork girl to swing a hurley or a Kerry lad to kick a ball over a bar.
Perhaps an Olympic-sized ice rink, open all year round, would do something similar for the south of Ireland. A lack of facilities is all that’s stopping us really – or at least that’s the excuse I’m putting forward.
But for now the majority of us will have to be content with watching – including me - since I didn’t even finish the course properly, never mind clocking in a time! In fact there were only three females who managed it, so you can bet your socks I’ll be there in February cheering them on.
And Graeme’s advice to the 40 qualifiers who battled it out in Belfast and Dublin this month?
“Just do your best, give it your all, and arrive at the bottom in one piece. When you’re doing it, you’ll be thinking “What am I doing?!”, but then the adrenaline kind of takes over,” he said. “It’s full-contact so if someone gets in your way you can shoulder them.
But that’s not what those guys are thinking of going into it, they’re just thinking about the speed.”
Red Bull Crashed Ice takes place in Belfast on February 20 and 21. Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.ie and Ticketmaster outlets priced at £11 for adults, £5.75 for children and £28 for a family of two adults and two children. Check out the video here.
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