BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Graeme Walton grabbed a spectacular second place in his first and only Red Bull Crashed Ice race in Klagenfurt, Austria as a fearless 21-year-old back in 2002. In the second Ice Cross Downhill race ever held, Walton was even in the lead in the final halfway down the track before getting knocked down from behind in a three-way pileup on a tough corkscrew turn that enabled Sweden’s Jasper Felder, the only racer to stay on his feet, to scamper away to victory.
It was a promising start for his Ice Cross Downhill career but it was also the end when he signed a professional hockey contract the next year with the Belfast Giants, his hometown hockey team. Walton became a star defenseman during his 11 years for the Giants, who play in the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), and he also played for a key role for Great Britain at the world championships. He loved playing hockey but he admits he has regrets about doing another Red Bull Crashed Ice race again – and he is contemplating a comeback next year.
“I played hockey for 11 years but the adrenaline rush I got from Red Bull Crashed Ice was way, way more than anything I ever got playing hockey,” said Walton, who is now 33 and helped coach some Northern Ireland athletes. “You’re cruising down there at 65 km/m on a pair of skates, the wind is beating off your face, water is running out of your eyes, you can hardly see, and you just take these jumps as you come. The adrenaline rush is second to none. You won’t experience anything like that in any other sport.”
Walton, the only athlete from Northern Ireland or the UK to ever get on a podium in Ice Cross Downhill, admits he was surprised that he did so well in his first and only race. He said he had no idea what he was getting into back in 2002 and was actually the second-choice pick who only filled in for another Belfast hockey player who wasn’t able to make it to Klagenfurt. “I was thrown into the deep end but that’s probably the best way,” he said. “I found out just a week before the race that I was going to do it. It was a bit of a shock that I did so well. But it was great.”
Walton, who retired last year from the Belfast Giants after a highlight-filled career that included a handful of championships and more than 600 games, said he sometimes wondered what might have happened if he had pursued a career in Red Bull Crashed Ice back then instead of turning into a hockey pro. The Giants retired his number 18 jersey as a tribute for their veteran defenseman.
“The next Red Bull Crashed Ice race in 2003 was in the middle of the hockey season and they wouldn’t give me the time off to go do it,” he said of the one and only 2003 race in Duluth, Minnesota. “It’s probably the one the I regret that I haven’t take on my in career. I only got to do this sport once that that was it. But as far as my hockey career goes – I’ve got no regrets there.”
Watching the Northern Ireland athletes training on the spectacular 430-meter long track in front of the Parliament Buildings in Beflast, Walton was asked if he thought he might have become one of the best in the sport if he had gone that path.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I think I’d have had a good go at it,” he said. “The standard really went up a lot since 2002. The guys are at a totally different level.”
With a twinkle in his eye watching the action next to the track, Walton said he was nevertheless thinking about trying the sport again in 2016 if he can find the time to prepare for it.
“Maybe next year,” he said with a smile. “Give me a year to train and get ready.”
Red Bull Crashed Ice Belfast will be live on redbullcrashedice.com (8:30pm CET) and on Red Bull TV (9:15pm CET) on February 21. Red Bull TV is available on connected TVs, gaming consoles, mobile devices and more. For a full list of supported devices visit about.redbull.tv.