The one thing that really comes across when you talk to James ‘Woodsy’ Woods is that he absolutely loves what he does. And you kind of have to, to make your way from the UK dry slopes to ski bums’ laptop screens to Olympic athlete. British freeskiing’s golden boy shot into the public eye when he started winning Olympic qualifying events straight off the bat in the lead up to Sochi 2014, being touted as one of Great Britain’s most promising medal hopes. But Woodsy had been killing it on the lesser-known freestyle scene long before that.
The Sheffield native grew up skiing on the dry slope at the now extinct but still legendary (in terms of British freeskiing, anyway) Sheffield Ski Village. No one in his family skied. The dry slope just happened to be next to the skate park where a young Woodsy went skating. Freeskiing was still in its infancy at the time; a far cry from what we’ll be glued to on the TV this winter. So, what exactly was it that attracted him to the ski slope? “I was around ten years old and had played, or at least had a go at, every sport under the sun,” he explains. “I really enjoyed skating but when I found skiing I also found the action and free sports culture. It truly was that environment and people who were the real draw to this industry.”
But how did he take it all the way to Team GB and the Olympics? “The rest is simply motivation!” he laughs. And that’s certainly true. Looking at Woodsy’s early career, he’s cut his own lines the way few others have. Before the days of Olympic slopestyle, skiing saw him studying for his GCSEs while competing in the Dew Tour and working towards his A Levels via email while living in the USA for the winter. It’s not the kind of thing you do unless you really love something. Woodsy’s skiing saw him quickly making a name for himself as one of the most stylish freeskiers, not just in Britain, but in the world. His now trademark effortless style and innovative grab combos earned him movie parts and competition results alongside each other, two aspects of freestyle snow sports that are becoming more and more exclusive of each other the more established they become. But his thoughts on being the only skier in his family sum up his somewhat individual journey as a skier perfectly: “It truly made the discovery of skiing for me all that more exciting… It was and still is my own adventure!”
Woodsy came away from the first ever Winter Olympic slopestyle with fifth place, a remarkable achievement considering he’d been competing with a hip injury sustained during practice. “It definitely was a rad experience going to the Olympics, obviously it was the first time freeski slopestyle was in the Olympics, so it was quite an adventure for everyone really.” He explains. “Unfortunately, [the injury] really cast a shadow on the whole experience for me, but has definitely lit a fire for 2018!”
And that it has. Woodsy’s had an extraordinary track record since 2014, winning two X Games medals, podiuming World Cup events, placing first at the New Zealand Winter Games, to name but a few. Winter 2016/17 also saw him travelling around the UK with Planks Clothing as part of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, as well as coming to the Alps (including Morzine) on a tour of all the Planks stores. He’s even found the time to work with Planks to create the Woodsy Signature Series of clothing and outerwear. “I’m so happy to be working with Planks.” He says, “The whole crew are such great people and it’s amazing to have the creativity with the ‘Woodsy Signature Series’!”
Have there been any particular highlights for him? “The X Games gold medal is huge for me, that certainly goes down as one of my biggest achievements,” he starts. “However, I have to say that really, no one day or particular achievement is a highlight for me – I’ve always dreamt of this life; the freedom, adventure, the lifestyle of a professional freeskier and somehow I’ve achieved that. This is my dream and I wake up to it every day – it doesn’t get better than that.” And there it is again. That absolute passion for what he does shining through.
It comes out again when I ask about how he trains – what’s the secret to that unique style and mind-bending grabs? “Skiing has always been my everything. I would ski, ski, ski all day long and pretty much scoff at anyone who thought differently to me. However, the more of the world I’ve seen and experienced, the more I’ve begun to enjoy. Surfing, skydiving and biking are right up there with skiing as activities that I love now.”
“For a while I got all of my strength from the range of skill based activities that I was filling my days with. The last six months though – due to injury – I’ve been forced to spend more time in the gym sorting my aches and pains so I can get back out there and do what I love. Honestly, I have found myself getting a good kick out of the strength, fitness and the healthy lifestyle that going to the gym has opened my eyes to. So I’m pretty much all about that now as well and I have very busy days!”
Those days will be getting busier leading up to the Games no doubt. I ask Woodsy if the Olympics has changed things for him. “In the little bubble that I’m so lucky to live in, nothing really changes,” he says. “My focus on skiing and the people I’m surrounded with hasn’t really changed, it just seems like we’ve gone up in other people’s estimations!”
And how is he feeling in the run-up to the Pyeonchang? Images of a teary-eyed Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood from Sochi come to mind as I wonder if the athletes competing feel the same level of patriotism about the Games as the general public. But Woodsy likes to think of it in the same as he would any other competition. “I enjoy putting a lot of effort into all the competitions that I do and every season feels just as important for me really. I’ll treat it just the same as any other; dial in my tricks, get there in as good a mind state as possible and do my thing.”
Does it add an extra element of pressure? Knowing you’re competing for your country? “Thinking back to Russia in 2014,” he carries on, “It was definitely a bit strange seeing the whole crew wearing their nation’s colours [instead of] the gear they would usually, and that does add a different kind of pressure in a way. The reason the Olympics is a big deal is because people know about it, your family, friends and country get behind you and expect you to perform.”
This is something Woodsy seems to take in his stride, where his love for skiing and equal drive to do well in every single competition works in his favour. Something he often says in interviews is how he views freeskiing as a lifestyle sport, which must be a good way to view things in terms of a discipline, where the level is so high and continuing to progress all the time. “I like to think about what I do as an art rather than a sport.” He explains. “Everyone brings their own flavour and spark to the event and it is so, so difficult to judge. In many cases, it’s comparing apples and oranges, so as far as the results are concerned I try not to worry about it. My focus is and always has been to do my best run possible, show the world what I’m capable of and if I do that to the standard that I know I can, I’ll be very proud of myself.”
Enough about the Olympics. Like Woodsy says, it’s just another competition at the end of the day, only one that happens to get a bit more attention than others.