Standing at the top of a downhill ice track in the middle of Boston’s Fenway Park, listening to the roar of the packed crowd, Johanny “JoJo” Velasquez felt something in his stomach he’d never felt before — butterflies.
But that sort of energy only fuels the State College Area High School senior, who would use that adrenaline to skate to a Red Bull Crashed Ice Junior World championship on Friday.
“I felt like I could rule the world,” Velasquez said. “The adrenaline was awesome.”
An “up-and-coming action sport race,” as Velasquez explained, Red Bull Crashed Ice combines “super-high” vertical jumps, speeds of up to 50 mph, and four athletes competing to cross the finish line first. It’s like ski or snowboard cross, but with ice skates, on a downhill ice track.
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Although Velasquez has only been competing in crashed ice for a year, he feels that with his rollerblading and ice hockey background, he’s been training for it his whole life. With both of his parents — Richie and Pamela Velasquez — having been professional roller bladers themselves, JoJo was destined to skate.
“I’ve been skating since I was three years old,” Velasquez said. “My dad competed in the X Games for roller blading, and he put me on skates as soon as I could walk.”
He then started playing ice hockey at 10 years old. It’s the combination of those two sports that Velasquez said has prepared him for Red Bull Crashed Ice.
As an “offensively minded” defensman for the State High club hockey team, Velasquez’s coach Scott Balboni says Velasquez never takes a drill in practice or a shift in a game off, and always gives 100 percent.
“He has tremendous skating and all together hockey skills, and combines that in a package that works hard each and every day trying to make him and all of the teammates around him be the best they can be,” Balboni said. “And he does so in such a positive and constructive manner.”
Fortunately for Velasquez, he found a sport that combines both of his athletic passions.
“It was the best of both worlds for me,” Velasquez said about his foray into Red Bull Crashed Ice. “I saw it in 2013 and thought this is something I want to do. I got the opportunity when I was 17 years old, and I’ve been training, and I’ve really excelled. Luckily for me, I was able to take the title here.”
The event Velasquez competed at was part of a two-day schedule of races, culminating in the men’s and women’s world championships on Saturday. To reshape one of America’s most historic baseball parks into a winter wonderland, Velasquez said they built a scaffolding to shape the 1,200-foot ice track, then ran some pipes underneath with “super-cold” liquid to create the ice.
“When I first saw the arena, it was just jaw-dropping,” he said.
When Velasquez walked up to the gate to get ready for his competition, he couldn’t see the crowd, all he saw was the track in front of him. But then one of his friends hit a flip in the freestyle competition that was going on, and the roar of the crowd let Velasquez know just how many people were there to watch him compete.
But Velasquez quickly channeled that nervousness into adrenaline, and used it to propel him through the course. The 18-year-old took the lead after the first corner and never looked back until crossing that finish line, when a sense of relief poured over him.
“You get so stressed, a good stress though, and once you cross that finish line, all that training, all that hard work you put in, it’s hard to explain,” Velasquez said. “It’s truly the best feeling ever.”
As he crossed the finish line, Velasquez was embraced by his competitors, who poured water over him in celebration.
The best part of winning the competition for Velasquez, even more than the junior world championship ring he’s been wearing with pride since Friday, is the fact that he got to share the moment with his friends and family. Along with his parents, Velasquez had aunts, uncles, cousins, close friends and mentors in the crowd to cheer him on.
“I had my family there to support me, so the feeling of that was very special and I’m glad that I got to experience that with them,” he said.
As for his future plans, Velasquez’s first goal is graduate from State High this spring. After that, he plans to continue to train and make connections in the sport. Athletes have to be 21 in order to compete full time in the professional division.
Until then, Velasquez just wants to keep having fun, spending time with friends and family, and flipping burgers at Woodward’s summer camps.
“I’m just going to train, keep doing what I’ve been doing,” he said, “and just smile as much as I can while I‘m doing it.”