Racers kicked off the preliminary Red Bull Crashed Ice rounds with some crashes and cheers.
Kevin Dobie entered the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition hoping to earn a spot on the U.S. team, but after racing down the quarter-mile ice track that hurtled some participants through the air and into the boards Thursday, he just wanted to finish in one piece.
"I'll be glad to get out of here unhurt," said Dobie, 30, of Minneapolis. "I was a little scared, to be honest, but it worked out well."
Hundreds of spectators gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul to alternately cheer and wince as athletes dropped down a four-story slope, rounded turns, jumped over ice bumps and flew up a 16-foot incline. Athletes and spectators said at least one person broke his leg during mid-morning practice, but that could not be confirmed with organizers.
"It's been so fun to watch the energy around here," said Shana Crosson, who works downtown. "[The athletes] are insane."
Dobie, who didn't fall during his first full run, was among about 100 U.S. athletes competing Thursday to make the top 64 who will advance to elimination races Friday against an equal number of competitors from around the world. The best 64 will advance to the finals Saturday.
"It's crazy," said competitor Pete Johnson, 28, of St. Paul. "It's unlike anything I've ever done."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman took an inaugural spin and fall on the ice early Thursday with his 17-year-old son, Aidan, Council Member Melvin Carter III and David Gillette of TPT-TV "Almanac" show.
"You think it looks easy -- not at all," the mayor said, shaking his head. "It was hard, it was way harder than I thought it would be."
Coleman, who had hoped to stay up while skating the whole course, fell a few times during practice runs and eventually made it through a short portion of the track upright.
"Everyone is alive," said his wife, Connie. "Alive is good."
The sport, which regularly sends contenders face-first into the ice (called ice cross downhill), requires full-body protective gear and a helmet. Thankfully, some athletes and spectators noted, the track starts at the Cathedral and winds its way down near some hospitals.
"God is very close," Swiss competitor Reto Maeder joked.
Although international athletes won't get a crack at the ice until Friday, many took in the sights early to prepare.
"It's really important that you have a good feeling here," said Oliver Gurtner, also from Switzerland. "It's a good city to have the event here."
Event organizers expect as many as 75,000 spectators for Saturday's finals, and crowds swelled throughout the day Thursday.
"It's very impressive," St. Paul resident Fran Gretz said.
Brothers Craig and Joe Kaufman said the race couldn't be more thrilling for them as St. Paul natives and athletes. The brothers raced and said simply remaining upright was their main goal.
The sport is more popular in Europe and Canada, so it could be a challenge for American athletes seeking victory Saturday. Andreas Wirnstl of Germany had one tip for newbie Americans: "Look at the international guys [Friday]."
For event information, visit www.redbullcrashedice.com.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib