They're fast and fearless, hard-working and hard-charging, and women have helped make Red Bull Crashed Ice more fun to watch this winter with their high-speed, high-energy, action-filled battles down the ice tracks.
The level of competition in the women's world championship has risen dramatically over the last two seasons in the sport that was created in 2001. There was once an enormous gap between the men, who raced down the tracks with great skill and abandon, and the women, who only started racing in 2004 and long seemed to be moving more cautiously and at slower speeds. But that has changed now and when the top women are racing, many spectators can only tell for sure the difference between the men and women if the racers have long hair streaming out from beneath their crash helmets.
"It comes down to the women doing a lot more off-ice training in the off-season now thanks to the introduction of the women's world championship last year," said American Amanda Trunzo, a Minnesota native and former college hockey player who is leading the championship with 1,800 points after two of four races this year. "Having a world tour like the men has made a huge difference for the women. It's really grown the sport and pushed people in the off season to become that much better."
Better indeed. The women's races draw a lot of attention from the crowds and the media. Even though small numbers of courageous and pioneering women have taken part in one-off races since 2004 and at least one annual race since 2010, the full-fledged women's world championship was only introduced in the 2015/16 season with four races. Now in its second season, the women's Ice Cross Downhill Championship has become an exciting element of the sport in which athletes barrel four at a time down a steep obstacle-filled ice track at speeds of up to 80 km/h in the hopes taking first or second place and advancing to the next round.
"Having so much more experience with the championship now and racing more often against other women has made everyone in the race much better," said Jacqueline Legere of Canada, the 2016 champion. "Having the whole tour gives you so much more to fight for instead of just one or two races a year," added Legere, who also works as a stunt performer for films and television productions.
"The women's race in the past used to be a lot different than it is now," said Reed Whiting, a former top American racer and now a TV color commentator for the world's fastest sport on skates. He points to the start of the world tour last season as the catalytic moment for the big improvement in the women's competition. "The girls are training like the boys now and training really seriously all-year round. You're seeing their level increase exponentially every year. With all the training, it's no surprise how good they're getting."
Their enthusiasm is contagious. Caylie O'Neil is a computer programmer from Madison, Wisconsin who just happened to watch the Saint Paul race last year with her father and got totally hooked. She had been a figure skater years earlier but had not been active in sports for many years.
"Watching the race last year was just the most amazing thing I'd ever seen," said O'Neil. She is ranked 29th in the world now. "I knew I wanted to be part of it. It looked so terrifying but I told my father that next year I'd be racing and here I am. It's been a blast."
Following Myriam Trepanier's thrilling win in Saint Paul at the weekend, the fight for the women's title will go down to the wire at the final event in Ottawa, Canada on March 4.