ANCHORAGE - With his legs attached to the snowboard, 15-year-old Ryan Stassel took a penguin-like running start, launching himself toward the first ramp in the terrain park. A light-blue cap covered his curly black hair and he squatted low in baggy brown board pants to gain speed for the jump.
Then he was up, and the force with which he approached the jump was transformed into a ballet-like pose.
His arms reached out and his body gracefully cut through the falling snow as he made the "tranny," a boarding term for the transition off the ramp.
Make the tranny, and all is well. Miss it by a foot and things get ugly.
The move, called a "method," is the core trick of a talented snowboarder, said Ryan's coach Jeremy Puckett. Nodding his head in approval, Puckett said that method, performed perfectly, is why Ryan Stassel is one of Alaska's best snowboarders.
"The world is in his hands right now," said Puckett, head coach of the Big Alaska Snowboard and Freeski Club, a nonprofit that offers competitions sanctioned by the United States of America Snowboard Association. "We're seeing a generation of snowboarders who grew up with parents who snowboarded, and now we have 15-year-olds like Ryan close to winning events."
Indeed, Stassel is in top form these days.
He returned in mid-January from the Burton European Open Snowboard competition in Switzerland, the only Alaskan to compete against the world's best snowboarders in slopestyle, a discipline that showcases a boarder's ability to perform tricks along a course set with obstacles and jumps.
He placed eighth out of 122 riders in the junior division, and by lottery got into the men's competition, which included such top U.S. pros as Shaun White and such Europeans as Iouri Podlatchikov of Switzerland.
In that division, Stassel took 22nd out of 150 riders. Only one other rider Stassel's age -- Sebastien Toutant of Canada - did as well, placing ninth in the men's division.
"I was really happy," said Ryan. "I beat a couple of major pros (including Kevin Pearce, winner of the halfpipe event, and Mason Aguirre, who finished 23rd) and that felt good."
So what does all this mean for Stassel, a 140-pound Elijah Wood look-alike who goes to Service High and also likes commercial fishing and playing with his video camera?
For now it means a lot of fun, he said. Slopestyle is not an Olympic event, so Stassel has no aspirations there, although his talents could be enough to transfer to such Olympic events as boardercross and giant slalom.
Instead, he envisions a future in filmmaking, where he can see himself flying over natural obstacles that terrain parks attempt to re-create. Being in films such as these requires hard-core ability, and he will likely need to win some major events to make a name for himself, he said.
But in the end, it's about having fun, and doing what you love.
"Slopestyle is fun, but I do not want to have a career of it," he said. "Really I don't think of snowboarding as training, which you have to do for the Olympics. To me it's more like, 'Well, it's a sunny day and I want to try that trick, so let's go rip it.' "
Stassel always enjoyed skateboarding so his transition to snowboarding came easy. At about age 8, he saw a snowboard ad on television.
"They were showing some pretty intense tricks, and it looked fun. So I got a board and started riding," he said.
Steve Stassel, Ryan's dad and vice president/treasurer of the Big Alaska Board of Directors, said his son took to the sport naturally.
"He has had a love of snowboarding ever since he strapped one on," he said. "We'd go to Alyeska and I remember him riding as late as he possibly could, skipping meals, riding even when the snow turned to rain. He'd come back, ravenous and dead tired but happy as a clam."
For fun Ryan began entering local races, and the wins came easy. Two years ago he won the age 12-13 Breaker category in the 2006 USASA National Championships at Northstar Resort in Lake Tahoe.
In 2007, he was chosen as an alternate for the All-American USASA snowboarding team, which competed in four international events geared towards juniors.
In the past month he has won two of the Big Alaska Snow Series events, one at Hilltop and the other at Alyeska Resort.
"It doesn't seem to matter to him if he is competing internationally or locally," Steve Stassel said. "He's just happy to be snowboarding anywhere."
On a practice day at Hilltop, Puckett and Ryan headed up the chairlift to the terrain park in powdery new snow that fell heavy at times. There was a time, Puckett said, when it was impressive if a kid could do a 180-degree turn on a snowboard. Now, that's just kids-play.
These days, top boarders begin with 540s - that's one-and-a-half turns - and "you've got to be pretty good ... because you're landing backwards," Puckett said.
Top boarders can do as many as three full rotations on a jump, or a "1080."
"There are even some people out there pushing it to 1440s," Puckett said. "It's insane."
At the terrain park, Ryan illustrated some of those skills; Puckett narrated.
"See that?" he said, pointing to Ryan as he hit a jump, grabbing his board between his legs and landing gracefully.
"That's an 'Indie,' with your back hand between your feet like that. There's another trick, the 'Tail Grab,' where you grab back by the tail of the board."
They're subtle differences, Puckett admitted, but can mean the difference between first and second place.
Run after run, Ryan executed the moves Puckett suggested as easily as most first-graders can copy the letters of an alphabet on command. They have such names as frontside boardslide, back lipslide and backside boardslide, each requiring slightly different and more technical skills.
"One of the coolest parts of snowboarding is that you are in constant motion," Puckett said. "The level of athleticism has really gone up over the years and there is better terrain and better equipment. We're at the point where if you don't have a new snowboard every year, you really are behind the times."
For Stassel, Diselrod and other up and coming Alaska snowboarders (Puckett said he coaches a 9-year-old who already can do tricks of kids twice his age), this can only mean slopestyle snowboarding is still growing.
"We're seeing more steep ramps and the tables are smaller so you can stay in the air higher," Ryan Stassel said. "And I like that. I like the feeling of being in the air. When I'm up there and I spin, I'm concentrating on my rotation. That's freeing and exhilarating."
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