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Snowboarder Stassel lands spot on U.S. team

Beth Bragg
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News Service High School junior Ryan Stassel decorates his room with snowboarding contest jerseys earned as he has reached the final rounds of competitions in recent years. While all competitors start out with paper bib numbers, he said, finalists making the select group for final-round competition receive jerseys. Stassel kicked off April by earning a silver medal in the Open Division Slopestyle event at the USA Snowboard Association 2010 Nationals at the Copper Mountain resort in Colorado. Seventy-five men competed in the event. Erik Hill

In a year that brought breakthroughs and bone breaks, Anchorage snowboarder Ryan Stassel's biggest break came once his season ended.

After spending the winter traveling from country to country for competitions, 20-year-old Stassel was back home when the phone woke him up around 6 one recent morning. Barely awake, he heard the news he was hoping for but not counting on: He'd been named to the U.S. Snowboarding team, an achievement that comes with training camps, financial support and increased competitive opportunities.

"I'm still kind of star-gazed," Stassel said Friday. "It's been a long work in progress to get to this point, and it's just nice and exciting."

Not to mention well-timed.

Stassel's selection to the national team comes just months before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where Stassel's sport, slopestyle, will make its Olympic debut.

Making the national team in May does not automatically translate to making the Olympic team in February. Stassel and other American athletes will be battling for spots on the U.S. team for the first half of the upcoming season.

But making the national team puts Stassel on the path he wants to be on -- and it puts him there a couple of years ahead of schedule.

When slopestyle -- a sport in which riders perform jumps, flips and other tricks along a course set with rails, jumps and other obstacles -- was adopted as an Olympic sport in 2011, Stassel's thoughts turned to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

This winter put other thoughts in his head.

Stassel ranks 28th in the world after the best season of his career, which got its start at Hilltop and Alyeska, where he showed promise as a little boy.

By cracking the top 25 in a World Cup competition in Colorado in early January, he earned a spot in a World Cup competition in Canada that also served as the world championships. He placed seventh, beating some of the sport's biggest names.

"I started thinking, hey, I'm beating some of these top guys," Stassel said. "At first (2018) was really the Olympics I thought about -- I'll be 25 and be at my prime point. But after that second World Cup event I thought, well, I have a chance for (2014).

"I just keep doing my thing and things keep happening to work out, except I broke my leg."

The injury happened in Spain. Impressed by his performance at the world championships, the U.S. Snowboarding Team sent Stassel to Europe in March for more World Cup competition. He placed 17th in a competition in the Czech Republic and was off to an even better start at an event in Spain, finishing fifth on the first of two qualifying rides, when his season suddenly ended.

"I landed my first run in the qualifiers and I knew it was a really good run," Stassel said. "I knew I was gonna make it into the finals so I was amping up my second run to get ready for finals. I happened to land a little off and twisted my ankle and happened to break my leg, right by the ankle."

Stassel was attempting a backside double 1080, a trick that involves two flips and a ton of time in the air. "It's usually a trick I'm very confident in," he said. "The visibility wasn't too good."

He flew home to Anchorage, where he was happy to learn he didn't need surgery, just five weeks in a cast. The cast came off last week, and on Monday he begins rehab at Rebound Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy.

"I was lucky," he said.

A year ago, Stassel broke his other leg at a national-team training camp he had been invited to.

"Those camps are very high intensity, with a bunch of great athletes and riders, and everyone's pushing each other," he said. "I hurt myself pushing myself, so at least I was doing something that was pushing me forward."

The biggest bummer about that injury was it happened around this time of the year, and it cost him a season of commercial fishing. Stassel and his family are setnetters with two locations on the Kenai Peninsula, and the money Stassel earns in the summer helps pay for his snowboarding in the winter.

"I will fish this summer," he said.

Though that means he will spend about two months on the job, he doesn't think it will hurt his snowboarding.

"Generally fishing is pretty physical," he said. "You're constantly moving, you're lifting things, you're poling, there's a lot of different motions going on."

When he gets breaks from fishing, he works out on a big trampoline that he sets up on the beach.

"I'm not really working on tricks," he said. "It's more to keep my air awareness and keep that feeling of being upsidedown and twisting and turning."

In August, Stassel will leave Alaska for New Zealand and his first training camp as an official member of the national team. That means his airfare and lodging will be covered by the national team.

The camp is the first of several Stassel will attend before the seasons begins. With the Olympics looming, those camps will kick off a high-intensity, high-stakes season, but Stassel hopes to avoid both distractions and disappointments.

"If I make it, awesome," he said. "If not, this is just another stepping stone to my original goal. It would be cool, but if not, it tells me I've got more to work for."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com