Team GB star James Woods: Slopestyle is art, not sport
Freestyle skier James Woods is one of Britain’s best hopes for a medal in PyeongChang. After breaking his hip ahead of Sochi 2014, he tells David Cox that he wants to show the world what he can do in South Korea.
“I’m going in a little slower for this first jump, the snow’s quite fast today,” James Woods tells Eurosport, as he embarks on his latest slopestyle training run, while simultaneously narrating his every move via a phone zipped into the pocket of his hoodie.
Seconds later Woods is whooping as he flies off a ramp, spins and swivels in mid air, lands 30m down the course, and begins eyeing up his approach to jump two. “Bit of an unconventional way to do an interview,” he laughs. “I just need to get this training in. Kinda fun though, no? Do you not feel you’re part of the ride?”
Whether it’s interviews or wheeling out his signature trick – the switch triple cork 1440 octograb, a mesmerising stunt involving flipping three times and spinning around four times while flying through mid air – Woods, a long-haired 25-year-old from Sheffield, does things his own way. It’s an attitude that’s seen him defy the established skiing powerhouses – France, Switzerland, Canada, Norway and the US – to become one of the world’s elite freestyle skiers, winning a string of World Cup and World Championship medals despite coming from a country with virtually no track record at all in the sport.
Not that it’s been easy. “I’d been doing events on the dry slopes around the UK since I was 11, 12 years old,” Woods remembers. “But as this British kid I had a very difficult time getting invites to any international competitions, even the open events where you make your mark. So at 18 I really began to think I wouldn’t actually make it.”
Woods finally received his first chance at the 2011 Winter X Games, the mecca of all action sports. “They held it in France and I personally believe I got an invite just to buff out the numbers, and get some more European countries in. It was a stroke of luck, but I won bronze and didn’t look back.”
The X Games, with its rock star vibe, bright lights and pounding music, has always been where it’s at for Woods, who claimed gold in his favoured big air event (a non-Olympic category) last year, and bronze this year. The Olympics has only just begun to establish itself in the minds of freestyle skiers after slopestyle was introduced to the Games for the first time in Sochi.
“The X Games has always been about that raw passion, while we only found out five years ago that the Olympics would even be an option for us,” Woods laughs. “No-one in this sport even asked to be in, but I see it as an opportunity to put down my personal pride and regular prima donna attitude, and actually go and compete for my country, which is an honour, and I have to remind myself of that.”
Woods’ debut four years ago did not go exactly to plan. He arrived in Sochi among the favourites but a freak training accident saw him fracture his hip just days before the Games. Remarkably, skiing under heavy painkillers, he still finished fifth but was left wondering what might have been.
“I was feeling incredibly confident, just head and shoulders ahead of the rest with some of the tricks that I was doing,” he remembers. “I got a massive gust of wind just as I took off on a jump, nothing I could do. It sent me a lot further than the landing area, onto the sheet ice rather than the inclined slope which catches you nicely, and I fractured my hip. While I’m proud I still came fifth, I didn’t really compete in my opinion, I just got the run over and done with. I wanted to show the nation and the world what I can actually do, and obviously that wasn’t the half of it.”
Such are the dangers of slopestyle, a sport where a small slip or an ill-timed wind can leave a skier facing serious injury or worse. A big mountain skier in his teens, Woods quickly learnt to improvise his way out of trouble after a number of hair-rising near misses when shooting videos off-piste, one of which left him dangling in a tree on the edge of a cliff. It’s an ability that’s served him well in the freestyle world where he’s known for his ability to extricate himself when things go wrong in sometimes spectacular ways – landing a jump on one ski at a World Cup event two years ago.
James Woods of Great Britain takes a fall during a Ski Slopestyle official training session ahead of the the Sochi 2014 Winter OlympicsGetty Images
“It’s part of the sport,” Woods says. “In an instant it can switch from performing, focusing on getting everything perfect, to survival mode. You have to trust your subconscious to make the right split-second decisions when you’re spinning through the air at speed.”
High speed sports place unique demands on the mental faculties, to be able to weigh everything up in almost slow motion. Freestyle skiers need to be one step ahead of a range of factors from the wind to the condition of the snow on each jump, and just as Formula One drivers sometimes refer to the almost out-of-body experiences which emanate from controlling a car at 200mph, skiers have their own mindset which Woods personally terms, ‘The Matrix.’
“It’s kind of almost like blacking out,” he says. “You’re so focused you’re not really thinking any conscious lines, just skiing and concentrating, and at the end of it you can barely remember what happened. It’s like all your energy just went into every single move you made, not into making memories of what went on.”
This is not least because, aside from the risks, Olympic slopestyle is a three-minute long quest for technical perfection, where elite skiers are separated from each other by the minutiae of detail, ranging from how they landed on the snow to how well a jump is timed. In the minutes before setting off, skiers sit trying to visualize how they might engineer an error-free run.
“At this point in time, the talent pool is so amazing that the only way of separating rider A from rider B is whether it was absolutely perfect or not,” Woods says. “Any imperfection means your run is just a write-off. You get a black mark by your name and that’s over and done. And that’s tough to deal with. So you have to weigh up whether you tone down the difficulty of your routine to eliminate mistakes, but at the same time if you don’t attempt the most difficult tricks, you may not stay in the competition.”
More of a gambler by nature, Woods prefers to take a ‘no tomorrow’ approach to racing, aiming to get the edge over his rivals in terms of difficulty, adapting his biggest and most intricate tricks from big air to slopestyle. “That’s the essence of what we do,” he explains. ”The progression’s so fast that the most extreme tricks from the year before that you’ll see only in the highest level big air competitions, this year they’ll be staples in slopestyle. It means you’re continuously forced to improve.”
At his very best, Woods is capable of putting together a run which few other skiers can match. But after the events of Sochi, he’s well aware that even with the best preparation, he could still be at the mercy of the elements in PyeongChang.
“There’s so much external stuff that comes into your performance, and that makes it an art, not a sport in my opinion,” he explains. “It’s not like other sports which are more about pure human power to get you across the finish line first. In slopestyle, you have to have the weather on your side, the course has to suit you, the judges have to like what you’re doing, it goes on. I’m on top of my game, and there’s no reason I can’t win the Olympics. But I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, it’d be great to win another competition, but that’s always the case. It’d be great to win the lottery too.”
Words: David Cox