Winter Olympics: James Woods & the ‘internal battle’ when counter culture meets elite sport

Winter Olympics: James Woods & the ‘internal battle’ when counter culture meets elite sport

Free Spirits is available on BBC iPlayer from 1 February and will be on BBC Three at 21:10 GMT on 3 FebruaryIn late September, in the northern Italian Alpine town of Bormio, Britain’s most decorated free skier James Woods is detailing a list of everything he owns. It’s very short.Fresh off a plane from Nicaragua,…

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Free Spirits is available on BBC iPlayer from 1 February and will be on BBC Three at 21:10 GMT on 3 February

In late September, in the northern Italian Alpine town of Bormio, Britain’s most decorated free skier James Woods is detailing a list of everything he owns. It’s very short.

Fresh off a plane from Nicaragua, where he’s spent the summer surfing and spear fishing, Woods is a showman and a natural talker.

Fuelled by two giant gelatos we’re well over the two-hour mark into an interview for the BBC TV documentary Free Spirits. He’s been subject, director and interviewer and is showing no sign of slowing down. Until we get onto the subject of his worldly possessions, that is.

“What have I got?” ponders Woods. “A motorbike in New Zealand. Some surfboards and skis scattered around everywhere. Danny, one of my really good mates, he’s got my car.”

Bags?

“I’ve got my ski bag, my backpack and my wheelie bag…”

Now aged 30, it’s not much more than the teenage Woods had with him when he took to the Alps after quitting school and leaving home aged 15 to concentrate on his passion for freestyle skiing. It was about sport, but also about lifestyle. He doesn’t have any regrets.

In 2019, he became the first British man to win World Championship gold on snow with victory in his favoured discipline of slopestyle – in which athletes ski down a course while performing tricks over rails and jumps.

Now he is one of the oldest on start lists at international events and is gearing up for his third Olympics. His sport has dramatically changed since those early days but that child-like excitement is still written all over his face. And next week in Beijing provides another chance to prove the doubters wrong.

Freestyle skiing might now be part of the mainstream and the Winter Olympics, but it is still, like Woods, a rebel at heart.

Short presentational grey line

Woods grew up in Sheffield, south Yorkshire. Football is king in the Steel City.

Bramall Lane or Hillsborough were not for him though. Instead, a free lesson from an advert in the local newspaper left him captivated by the dry slopes of Sheffield Ski Village at the age of 10.

While his global rivals grew up with ski resorts and 3,000m peaks in their backyard, he learned on a 300m-long stretch of plastic and only ended up choosing skiing over snowboarding because a year’s membership was £50 cheaper.

James Woods, pictured in December 2012
Woods, pictured in December 2012. That same year, Sheffield’s dry ski slopes were destroyed by fire. They’ve remained derelict since

“In Sheffield it’s counter culture really, to not like football,” he says. “I went up the dry slope and immersed myself in that culture and met these very passionate people who wanted to do something, go somewhere and had a fire in them. That sparked a fire in me.

“I definitely had a really big feeling that I wanted to get out and do something. I wanted to go and see a lot more than just Sheffield.”That desire came to a head in a conversation with his parents aged just 15.

“There was a lot of friction,” Woods says.

“I say: ‘I want to be a professional skier.’ They say: ‘Well you’ve got to go to school.’

“The thought that I wanted to go to the mountains, do drugs and waste my life was very real. It was like, ‘you’re a kid’. And freestyle skiing wasn’t a sport.”

When Woods was 15, his favoured discipline of slopestyle was still five years away from being included in the Winter Olympics’ freestyle skiing events. And Britain was certainly not a recognised skiing nation.

The X Games – an American-hosted World Championships in all-but name – was the pinnacle of the sport at that time. To some it still is. Their website includes a profile story on Woods with a headline that tells you everything about how British skiers were perceived: ‘Wrong Birthplace, Right Attitude.’

Woods says: “There’s been a bit of a stigma on British winter sports… that we were rubbish at it, that we were there for novelty value.

“I’d kind of been hustling with that the whole time. I’d rock up at events and it’d be like ‘oh you’re British, you can’t ski’. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that.”

As Woods himself points out, the decision to leave home and head to Europe to live in a caravan in the mountains at the age of 15 was bold. But that underdog status drove him on. Four years later he finished eighth at his first World Championships, in 2011. Two years later he was world number one.

Sandwiched between that huge progression, in 2012 the International Olympic Committee added ski slopestyle to the programme for the 2014 Winters in Sochi.

Woods was torn about it. Not because of the impending spotlight, but the idea of becoming “an athlete” and, even more worryingly, going mainstream.

Woods celebrating his 2019 World Championship title
Woods won the 2019 World Championship – the Olympics in the only thing in the sport he hasn’t won

“The idea of going to the Olympics then was exactly the same idea as going to the football World Cup. It’s like: ‘I know what it is, I know it’s a big deal but it’s over there and it’s got nothing to do with me,'” he says.

“What we were doing back then was not a sport. Not a sport at all. It was recreation, an activity, a lifestyle. There are things that are cool and things that are uncool. And you better be the right side of the line. It was very centred around music, clothing, style.

“I’d been jumping in front of crowds since I was 12. I’m a showboat. A massive show-off. I wasn’t worried at all about all the things people were telling me I should be worried about, like the TV cameras going out to the whole world.

“The pressure I felt was from this weird internal battle. I’d kind of spent my whole life running away from the norm, from society.

“I was struggling with the fact that now the mainstream media, school teachers, naysayers and all the people that I didn’t like, want to watch me do my thing.”

From 2021: Woods tells Ski Sunday why he loves free-skiing while doing flips

Putting those concerns to one side, Woods headed to Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Despite riding with a serious hip injury he finished fifth. Four years later at Pyeongchang 2018 in South Korea – again riding through injury – he finished agonisingly outside the medals in fourth.

But before the competition had even ended he was plotting his revenge mission: a single-minded focus on World Championship gold in 2019. A year later he achieved it with victory in Park City, Utah.

It left him burned out and on a beach in Nicaragua pondering his future.

“It was such a release… and then I thought, wow, I’m knackered, I need to take a minute,” he says.

“I was sat there in Park City after winning the World Champs thinking, this is crazy. I remember thinking, I like surfing, I’m not very good at it, but I think I need to go surfing. Now.

“I remember looking at the world map and thinking ‘that is one flight’ and all of a sudden I’m in Nicaragua. I wouldn’t say I was struggling or that I was in a bad place or a dark spot but I needed a break you know, like, yesterday.”

The relentless pace of elite competition – and the drive to succeed – had been taking its toll. But something else was happening too, as the freestyle skiing world and its party lifestyle matched with an increasing athleticism and mainstream appeal.

And while the sport was evolving, Woods was changing too.

Short presentational grey line

In November 2021, two months on from the gelato fest on the quiet streets of Bormio, we catch up with Woods again at a Freestyle World Cup event in Austria.

Competition on the Stubai Glacier in Tyrol is also serving as an Olympic qualification round. It doesn’t go well for Woods – he fails to qualify for the final, finishing 22nd.

Standing in a quiet corner of the athletes’ area on his own, the Briton takes stock. A few minutes earlier, reigning Olympic champion Sarah Hoefflin broke off an interview to have a bottle of beer poured down her throat by one of her rivals. Woods is teetotal these days.

“When you’re a teenager and you’re getting paid to travel the world skiing, people are all about what you’re doing and you’re on the up,” he says. “It’s pretty hard not to party after a win. And someone wins every week.

“That was a very good time but it was also a different time. No-one referred to us as athletes. It was very much like… just action. Action all day, all night. Now there’s definitely an athletic aspect to it.

“I’m also creeping on 30 so I cannot do a hangover. I’m much more mellow. I don’t drink at all anymore because I can’t hack it. It’s not for me.”

Woods ended the Stubai World Cup ranked 25th in the world. It left him perilously close to missing out on a place at Beijing 2022 and, because of what came next, all he could do was watch and hope.

Woods contracted Covid when competing in California in early January. As a result, when the final qualifier in Font Romeu began in the French Pyrenees a week later, Woods was stuck isolating on the outskirts of Los Angeles, powerless to stop rivals potentially ending his Olympic chances.

Disaster was averted. Woods only slipped down to a world ranking of 27th and will therefore be in China to try to make it third time lucky, 15 years after leaving Sheffield’s dry slopes behind.

“The Olympics is the only thing I haven’t won and I’d very much like to do that,” he says.

“All of the ingredients are there – they’ve been right there on the table the last two times you know. So you’ve got to go and give it your shot. I can’t walk away now can I?

“The idea of retiring, stopping competitions, packing the skis up, sticking them on the wall, getting a normal job, getting a house, going through that process… That is just not even close on the cards for me. If anything I want to do the crazy stuff I have been doing with even more freedom.

“I’m still on the path to achieving my dreams because I dreamt about a lifestyle.”

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