Stassel set for Winter Olympics

While training on the Olympic slopestyle course Tuesday, two-time halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White fell and jammed his wrist, calling the course “a little intimidating.”

White was the latest rider to fall victim to the Sochi course during practice for the new Olympic event, in which athletes score points based on tricks on a downhill course featuring jumps, boxes and rails.

Torstein Horgmo of Norway, an event favorite, broke a collarbone in practice, while Marika Enne of Finland fell hard, hit her head and was carried away on a stretcher.

Kasilof’s Jeremy Puckett, who coached Anchorage’s Ryan Stassel when Stassel was cutting his snowboarding teeth in Alaska, said the first-time Olympian should stack up on a tough course for two reasons — commercial fishing and Alaska’s mountains.

Steve Stassel, Ryan’s father, wrote in an email that his son is a third generation Clam Gulch set-netter who has spent every summer of his 21 years on the beach.

Puckett coached Ryan and his two sisters. He said the toughness instilled by commercial fishing was apparent.

“They grew up set netting from the time they were big enough to tighten a life jacket on,” Puckett said. “After being on a set-net boat in summer, you could always tell the little things didn’t bother them.

“A little bit of snow in their gloves didn’t bother them. Tightening their boots didn’t bother them. A chairlift ride in a nasty snowstorm didn’t bother them.”

Puckett, 35, has spent the majority of his life on the Kenai Peninsula since his parents, Rusty and Sandra Puckett of Sterling, moved here in 1982. Puckett consumed plenty of the diet that would one day make Stassel an Olympian — set netting in the summer and Alaska mountains in the winter.

He did it all the way until 2010, when he fell after a day of coaching snowboarders and separated his shoulder for the fourth time.

The days of snowboarding and coaching snowboarding off of summer wages were over. He married his wife, Melody, in 2011 and took a job driving truck on the North Slope. The couple is now expecting a child.

But Puckett has not forgotten how set netting changes one’s outlook.

“One thing about set netting — after the season, for the next six or eight months, anything you encounter is easy,” he said. “It’s a hard, brutal five weeks of your life and you know you’re doing it again next summer.

“It’s a big element for performance, especially doing something like snowboarding. There’s no tide to beat, no waves trying to kill you. It’s all fun and easy after that.”

Puckett said Girdwood’s Callan Chythlook-Sifsof also comes from a commercial fishing backround in Dillingham. Chythlook-Sifsof made the Olympics in snowboardcross in 2010, but was left off this year’s team.

Jay Hakkinen, a four-time Winter Olympian who did not make the biathlon team this year, also comes from a family that commercial fishes in Bristol Bay.

The mixing of commercial fishing and Alaska mountains results in a potent brew.

“Fishing and mountains, man, that’s life,” Puckett said.

He said training on Alaska mountains also creates champions. Stassel and Chythlook-Sifsof come from the Big Alaska program in which Puckett coached.

So does Brett Moody.

Stassel made his case for a spot on the Olympic team in January at the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain Resort. Stassel finished first in an Olympic qualifier on Jan. 16, fourth in a qualifier later that same day, and third in a qualifier on Jan. 18.

Moody was fifth in the first qualifier, fifth in the second qualifier and 10th in the third qualifier.

On Jan. 20, Stassel was selected as a discretionary pick as the last member of the four-man U.S. team.

Puckett said he coached Stassel on Alaska’s mountains from the time Stassel was 10 to about the time he was 15.

Some coach because they can’t do. That wasn’t Puckett. He once finished second overall at nationals in a compilation of disciplines. But he loved instructing kids. And while coaching didn’t pay him, it did get him free trips to competitions, where he could coach and compete.

From the first time Puckett saw Stassel ride, he knew he was special. He said most riders, before hitting puberty, have twitchy muscles and can’t ride with any style.

“Ryan, the first time I saw him, he looked like a miniature man riding,” Puckett said. “He always had that natural body structure in the way he handled himself. His muscle coordination was pretty apparent.”

Puckett joked that Stassel may have gotten some extra coaching time because he was so fun to ride with.

“If I wanted to leave him behind, I could, but I had to try pretty hard to dust him on the mountain, even when he was 11 or 12 years old,” Puckett said.

Puckett said at Alyeska, Stassel had to learn to pull slopestyle tricks off natural terrain, not things like rails.

“That breeds excellent snowboarders and skiers,” he said. “That’s why there are so many out of such a small population base.

“It’s no fluke. Alaska’s brutal.”

When Tommy Moe won the 1994 Olympic men’s downhill, Puckett said it didn’t hurt that conditions were flat light and blowing snow — common at Alyeska. He said similar conditions would aid Stassel. As will the fact that he is not on a beach on the Kenai Peninsula battling tides and waves.

“When I watch him ride, he’s always smiling and goofing off,” Puckett said. “You can tell he’s thinking, ‘Dang, this is easy.’”

Men’s slopestyle qualification is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. AST tonight. The semifinals will be Friday at 9:30 p.m., while the finals begin at 11:45 p.m. Friday. The action can be streamed at NBCOlympics.com or the NBC Sports Live Extra mobile app. Slopestyle also will be a part of the television coverage on NBC.

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