Alaska snowboarder's Olympics will start - and could end - early

bbragg@adn.comFebruary 4, 2014 

UPDATE: Shaun White has withdrawn from the Olympics slopestyle event over safety concerns.

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ORIGINAL STORY:

Ryan Stassel's Winter Olympics begin Wednesday, more than a day before the opening ceremonies in Sochi, Russia.

His Olympics could end before Friday morning's opening ceremonies, too.

Preliminary competition in Stassel's sport -- slopestyle snowboarding -- is Wednesday night at 9 p.m. Alaska time. Thirty men are entered, and only 12 will survive to ride in Friday night's semifinals.

Stassel, a 21-year-old from Anchorage, will make his Olympic debut in a sport that is also making its Olympic debut. Slopestyle -- being contested in snowboarding and skiing -- is one of a dozen new events on the schedule, and with superstar Shaun White among those competing, it is emerging as one of the must-see competitions.

Coverage of the preliminaries can be seen live-streamed at nbc.com. Tape-delayed network television coverage is scheduled for Thursday night on KTUU Channel 2.

North American athletes are among the best in slopestyle, and Stassel is coming off a strong series of competitions last month in California, where he clinched his Olympic spot with top-four finishes in three straight competitions. Last season, he finished seventh at the World Championships.

"As long as he lands on his board, I think he's got a pretty good shot (at advancing to the semifinals)," said his dad, Anchorage businessman Steve Stassel.

Landing upright is a critical element of slopestyle, an event in which snowboarders perform tricks off jumps, rails and quarterpipes on a short downhill course. Athletes are judged on difficulty and execution and receive a score, not a time.

The Sochi course has 450 feet of vertical drop on a 1,900-foot course -- or at least it did at the beginning of the week.

Modifications are being made, however, because there have been an assortment of crashes during training this week, including one Monday that knocked three-time X Games champion Torstein Horgmo of Norway out of the competition with a broken collarbone.

On Tuesday, Finland's Marika Enne suffered a concussion and was taken off the course on a stretcher, and White jammed his wrist on a fall. Big jumps and high speeds are among the problems.

"A little intimidating," White told the Associated Press. "It's been a challenge.

"It's frustrating to see it. It puts a damper on the whole mood, and it's kind of like you're getting ready to do a big trick and you see something like (an injury). Intimidating. Unfortunate. I'm hoping the builders can make some changes and the course has a little more of a friendly vibe."

Because their sport requires daredevil moves, slopestylers always flirt with danger -- in order for Stassel to make it to Sochi, he had to recover from a broken ankle suffered near the end of last season.

He was a long shot to make the Olympic team, but he came on strong in January.

Stassel's parents will be watching their son's Olympic debut from Anchorage on a computer, as will some of Ryan's co-workers at Gray Stassel Engineering, Steve Stassel's business, where Ryan works as a part-time engineer technician.

"We all know him pretty well," co-worker Cody Carpenter said. "It's exciting to be able to see someone who has achieved such a far-off goal."

Carpenter said Stassel embodies some of the craziness associated with the snowboarding culture, but he's mostly a regular guy.

"There's something really unique about him," he said. "He's so humble. He's not conceited or stuck up. He's not fully engulfed with himself."

 

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