Anchorage snowboarder Ryan Stassel started Thursday as a long shot for the Winter Olympics. After a day's worth of backsides, frontsides and blunt slides, he ended it as a solid contender.
Stassel, 21, thrust himself into the conversation by winning one slopestyle competition and placing fourth in another at a pair of Olympic qualifying events at the U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.
The day's work vaulted him into a tie for third place in the rankings that will determine which riders are named to the U.S. Olympic slopestyle team.
"I'm very happy," Stassel said in a phone interview. "It's nice to ride good and strong all day.
"I've put in a lot of effort and a lot of work. I've always known I have what it takes, and to put it down is really rewarding."
Thursday's competitions were the third and fourth of the Olympic selection process. The final one is Sunday, and Stassel goes into it poised to grab an Olympic berth.
"All I can do is wait and see," he said. "There's three guaranteed spots and a fourth one under coaches' discretion. Right now I'm sitting third, tied with (Sage Kotsenberg)."
Olympics and X Games star Shaun White secured one of the Sochi berths by winning Thursday's second competition -- a victory that came after he survived a scary, face-first crash in the first competition.
"I was pretty messed up this morning," White said in a U.S. Snowboarding Team press release. "I didn't really see that coming. I haven't taken a hit like that in a long time. I was almost thinking about calling the whole event. I couldn't really see straight and everything was a little blurry.
"I have a date with a bathtub full of ice right now."
Chas Guldemond of Reno, Nevada, who had finishes of third and 10th Thursday, is second to White in the selection standings. Then come Stassel and Sage Kotsenberg of Park City, Utah, who placed second in both competitions.
Stassel is the youngest in that group, is a rising star in an event that makes its Olympic debut next month. Slopestyle riders get two runs to navigate a short course while performing tricks off rails and other terrain features. Judges score performances, with perfection earning 100 points.
It's an event with a vocabulary all its own. Stassel's winning run included this description from the U.S. Snowboard Team: "Backside 270 to 270 out, switch backside 270, switch backside bluntslide, switch backside 900, frontside 1080 and backside 1260."
That's a lot of mid-air spins, and Stassel pulled them off to the tune of 95.0 points on the second run of Thursday's first competition. Kotsenberg was second with 92.6 and Guldemond was third with 88.6.
Stassel said he didn't unveil any new tricks, but he said he had never used this particular combination of jumps.
"I took the more difficult parts of my runs and kind of combined them," he said. "At this level and at this time, there's no holding back."
White, who will be making his third Olympic appearance, won the second competition with a score of 95.2, a tremendous score in slopestyle. Kotsenberg was second with 90.6; Stassel was fourth with 84.80.
Another Alaskan, Brian Moody, placed fifth in both competitions with scores of 77.8 and 75.4.
Stassel had the best performance by an American at last year's world championships, a seventh-place finish. He entered the season hoping he'd make it to Sochi, but thinking his better Olympics opportunity might come in 2018.
He was frustrated in this season's first two qualifying competitions. He didn't qualify for the finals in the first one, and he placed seventh in the second one. But he came through on Thursday -- twice.
He has two days to train for Sunday's final competition, where a trip to the Olympics is at stake.
"I'm staying grounded," he said. "I've dreamt about this all summer, and now that things are happening, I'm trying to stay in the now."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG