Skaters ready, five-second warning!
A couple of weeks ago I found myself preparing to compete in the Finnish Championships of Ice Cross Downhill. The sport is known from events sponsored by a popular energy drink, where ice skaters in full hockey armour fly and crash down an icy slope with sharp turns, drops and jumps. It is one of those spectacular showy sports that you look at in awe, thinking ‘me, never’ but secretly itch to have a go.
I have been following a few ice cross athletes for a while and have tried to see where I could catch up with the sport. After all, it was on skates, it was fast and looked mad.
- My ice skating experience: Improver. I had ice hockey boots albeit with blunt blades and had skated around the rink at least every other year. I learned to ice skate as a kid, because I am Finnish but had no formal training. The improver bit is due to the fact that roller skating skills do transfer fairly well to ice skates.
- My roller skating experience: Nine years. I started in my late 20s through roller derby, which I played for 6 years. I have skated ramps for about five-six years.
- Other sport experience: Unfortunately no skiing or surfing, which would have helped at Ice Cross Downhill but roller derby drove me to cross-train and I have done weightlifting in the gym as well as parkour and gymnastics on and off for quite a few years now.
- Other: The most fun stuff is also the scariest. I was most confident about having the right mindset for this craziness thinking: ”Bring it on”.
Things one does for their sport
…for example, water a pitch black forest with a hose pipe in the middle of the night in -20 degrees Celsius. My social media efforts to somehow connect with the sport bore fruit and I jumped on an offer to try a DIY backyard ice cross track. Exciting! #sjömanhoodstrack, built by hand by ice cross athlete and enthusiast Matias Sjöman in about 90 hours and with 22 000 litres of water.
I gathered my stuff – blunt second-hand hockey skates, my trusted roller skating helmet, kneepads, wrist guards and stinky ripped crash pants and head to the ice cross track. I psyched myself up, thinking it is like ramp skating on ice while also recalling the various times when I had imagined the most amazing tricks on the way to a skatepark, only to find new bruises and be reminded that the dream-me is not the real-me.
After my first crash, I was grateful for the hockey pants Matias had lent me, together with massive hands (hockey gloves) and elbow guards, covering roughly the area from my armpit to my wrist. It was too easy to hit the front of the skate blade on this side of the ice ramps and topple over. These ramps were not like skatepark ramps.
The next day while manually handling my legs from the ground into the car, I recalled that I had not only downhill skated, but also uphill skated for a good two hours.
I had stayed upright all the way around the technical track, rolling over bump after bump. I had managed some weeny jumps and was half ecstatic, half terrified about having said that I would sign up for the Finnish Champs, which were 350km away and in two weeks’ time.
The Finnish Champs would be on a proper track, allowing skaters to go 60km/h / 40mph. 😰
Matias and his brother Samu, who is also an accomplished ice cross athlete, both independently suggested that I should sign up for Finnish Champs. That gave me the needed courage. During the next two weeks, I brushed my doubts away by reasoning that they have done it before and knew the icy slope they were throwing me into.
I had to sharpen my skates to downhill standard: super sharp and with a flat profile, for a good bite and stability on the natural ice. I needed waxed laces and tight lacing to keep my ankles straight. My skate helmet had to go; the chin guard was non-negotiable. I wore Matias’ old ice hockey gear: crash pants, knee-shin guards, shoulder pads, elbow pads, and hockey gloves, hockey socks, a jersey. I had stitched the STEAKS® logo on both shoulders; it would show nicely on photos, I thought.
What can you realistically achieve in two weeks’ time?
Training periodisation and tapering towards a competition were automatically off the list. My hip flexors were in flames, I was experiencing the bliss of sharpened skates for the first time and still figuring out why the ice ramps did not behave like skatepark ramps.
My number one priority was to rest and stretch the hip flexors. Luckily it turned out to be just an initial flare-up and they did get better with care. Priority two was to be on ice skates. The blade felt nanoparticle-narrow, too narrow to land on. The immediate bite however often came to the rescue, sometimes even when not asked for. I learned that it is more about trying to be fast and go forward – unlike the go-high, back and forth style of skatepark skating. The icy bumps had to be pumped away from in order to accelerate during the exit. Trying to pump during entry, like at a skatepark, merely wasted energy. A few strides up, then a strong pump down. Apparently one of the top skaters’ main sports is hurdles. You get the idea.
You do not need an ice hockey background; this sport asks for a lot of body control and aerial skills, and mind over matter. A background in a variety of sports seems to work well.
I woke up refreshed after a long drive to Rautalampi, central Finland, the previous day. We had inspected the track that night in the moonlight and at trackside, I had bumped into another competitor, a girl called Mari — whose backstory was not far from mine. She’d been in the scene for a couple of seasons now, for fun and thrills. Matias had spotted her tumbling down an icy hill in second-hand hockey gear and offered some advice. It also turned out that she lives practically next door to me.
We had one practice run, followed by two time trials and the heats. Knowing how long it takes to become friends with a run at a skatepark, I was at a loss on what tactic to choose.
I could go for it in the practice run and trash the ice to bits or I could take it easy and memorise the track. The time trials mattered because they dictated who I’d go against in the heats and they also dictate the final placement if I did not get through the heats. My expectations were low, I was chilled, telling myself “go easy, they will fall, then just complete the run” … “strong and steady strides”.
A drop followed by a bump followed by a corner was just the start of the track. Damn. I sort of climbed it down. Steep, the whole thing was steep and icy. I had never had to lean into corners so hard. Wobble, wobble, my ankles were thanking me for the tight waxed lacing. I did not fly like in my dreams and when I finally got to the final straightaway which was flat ice, I had forgotten how to skate fast.
My second time trial saw an improvement of eight whole seconds. That’s pretty good, although I was still some fifteen seconds from the lead time. I finished the time trials 9th out of 12.
The heats are the actual competition. Four skaters get on the track simultaneously (although my heat had three, due to the 16-bracket used). Two die and don’t proceed into the next heat, while two go on to the next heat. My heat was epic. The fastest one of us legged it, while my and my remaining opponent’s strategy was more like that of a slinky spring. I fell three times. My Russian opponent fell three times. My brain was searching for any wise advice it could and settled on “steady strides”. So, I approached the final straightaway with a relaxed Sunday-driver pace that lifted a few unintended swear words off of Matias, who had acquired an accidental coach role and was furiously studying the goal camera footage to find out which one of us had actually won. The Russian had sprinted for her life from behind, but somehow I had managed to finish a toe-length before her. It hadn’t occurred to me to look behind… or skate fast.
Relive the drama through my commentated helmet camera footage here:
I had made it through the actual competition. Second in my heat. Pretty amazing. I must end the story here on a high note because I had no chance in the next heat. With that toe-length win, however, I earned my 8th place in the whole competition, and if I am sneaky and don’t count the Russians who entered the competition, I officially finished as the 5th fastest Finn in the Women’s Finnish Championships in Ice Cross Downhill 2019. Go and check my athlete profile on the ATSX (All Terrain Skate Cross Federation) website.
Since the competition, I have returned to Rautalampi to skate downhill for a day with one of the girls who I raced with. We had such a fun day and skated fast and tried to jump high. And in case you are interested: You can do it too. The ice cross scene is small and tight-knit, and there is a lot of community effort behind the scenes and plenty of encouragement offered (which reminded me of the camaraderie of roller derby!).
Petri Virta from the Finnish Skate Cross Association recommends the organisation’s Facebook group as a good starting point for those in Finland. I follow Instagram hashtags #icecrossdownhill, #atsx and #skatecross for inspiration and ideas for summer training. Internationally, All Terrain Skate Cross Federation’s Facebook page keeps you up to date and their website www.atsx.org lists competitions worldwide.
About the author:
The Blizzard is a member of the STEAKS Crew (#steaksshredders), Chicks in Bowls Crew and active in the Chicks in Bowls Helsinki chapter and wants to give special thanks to her guy Arron for supporting her through all her skate-related pursuits. Check her out on Instagram or YouTube.