At the end of September, in the alpine town of Bormio in northern Italy, Britain’s most decorated free skier, James Woods, details a list of everything he has. It’s very short.
Fresh off a plane from Nicaragua, where he spent the summer surfing and spearfishing, Woods is a natural showman and talker.
Fueled by two giant gelatos, we made it well over two hours of an interview for the BBC TV documentary Free Spirits. He has been subject, director and interviewer and shows no signs of slowing down. Until we come to the subject of his material possessions, that is.
“What have I had?” Woods mused. “A motorcycle in New Zealand. A few surfboards and skis scattered everywhere. Danny, one of my very good friends, he has my car.”
“I have my ski bag, my backpack and my roller bag…”
Now 30, he’s not much older than the teenager Woods had with him when he left for the Alps after leaving school and leaving home at 15 to focus on his life. passion for freestyle skiing. It was about sport, but also about lifestyle. He has no regrets.
In 2019, he became the first Briton to win World Championships on snow gold with victory in his favorite discipline of slopestyle – in which athletes race down a course while performing tricks on rails and jumps.
He is now one of the oldest on the start lists of international events and is preparing for his third Olympic Games. His sport has changed dramatically since those early days, but that childlike excitement is still written all over his face. And next week in Beijing offers another chance to prove the doubters wrong.
Freestyle skiing may now be mainstream and part of the Winter Olympics, but it remains, like Woods, a rebel at heart.
Woods grew up in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Football is king in the Steel City.
Bramall Lane or Hillsborough weren’t for him though. Instead, a free lesson from a local newspaper ad left him captivated by the dry slopes of Sheffield Ski Village as a 10-year-old.
While his global rivals grew up with ski resorts and 3,000m peaks in their backyards, he learned on a 300m-long stretch of plastic and ended up choosing skiing over snowboarding because that a one-year subscription was £50 cheaper.
“In Sheffield, it’s really counter-culture, not to like football,” he said. “I walked up the dry slope and immersed myself in this culture and met these very passionate people who wanted to do something, go somewhere and have a fire inside them. It ignited a fire inside me.
“I really felt like I wanted to go out and do something. I wanted to go see a lot more than Sheffield.” This desire reached its climax during a conversation with his parents who were barely 15 years old.
“There was a lot of friction,” Woods says.
“I say, ‘I want to be a professional skier.’ They say, ‘Well, you have to go to school.’
“The idea that I wanted to go to the mountains and do drugs and ruin my life was very real. It was like, ‘you’re a kid’. And freestyle skiing was not a sport.”
When Woods was 15, his favorite discipline of slopestyle was still five years away from being included in the freestyle skiing events at the Winter Olympics. And Britain was certainly not a recognized ski nation.
The X Games – world championships hosted by Americans in all but name – were the pinnacle of sport at that time. For some, it still is. Their website includes a profile story on Woods with a headline that tells you all about how British skiers were perceived: “Wrong birthplace, right attitude”.
Woods said: “There’s been a bit of a stigma on British winter sports…that we suck, that we’re there for novelty value.
“I had kind of hustled with it all the time. I was rocking at events and it would be like ‘oh you’re British, you can’t ski’. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder at that topic.”
As Woods himself points out, the decision to leave home and travel to Europe to live in a trailer in the mountains at the age of 15 was a bold one. But this outsider status pushed him to continue. Four years later, he finished eighth in his first world championships, in 2011. Two years later, he was world number one.
Sandwiched between this huge progression, in 2012 the International Olympic Committee added slopestyle skiing to the 2014 winter program in Sochi.
Woods was torn about it. Not because of the impending spotlight, but the idea of becoming “an athlete” and, more worryingly, becoming mainstream.
“The idea of going to the Olympics back then was exactly the same idea as going to the FIFA World Cup. It’s like, ‘I know what it is, I know it’. is a big deal but it’s out there and it has nothing to do with me,'” he says.
“What we were doing back then wasn’t a sport. Not a sport at all. It was a hobby, an activity, a lifestyle. There are things that are cool and things that aren’t. And it’s better to be on the right side of the line It was very centered around the music, the clothes, the style.
“I’d been jumping in front of crowds since I was 12. I’m a showboat. A massive show-off. I wasn’t at all worried about all the things people were telling me to worry about, like the Des TV cameras go all over the world.
“The pressure I felt came from this strange internal battle. I had kind of spent my whole life running away from the norm, from society.
“I was struggling with the fact that now the mainstream media, teachers, naysayers and all the people I didn’t like want to see me do my thing.”
Putting those concerns aside, Woods traveled to Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Despite a serious hip injury, he finished fifth. Four years later at Pyeongchang 2018 in South Korea – again injured – he finished dying outside the medals in fourth place.
But even before the competition was over, he was planning his mission for revenge: to focus squarely on gold at the World Championship in 2019. A year later, he achieved that with a victory in Park City, Utah.
It left him burned 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 sitting there in Park City after winning the world championships thinking, this is crazy. I remember thinking, I like surfing, I’m not very good at it, but I think I have to go surfing now.
“I remember looking at the world map and thinking ‘this is a robbery’ and all of a sudden I’m in Nicaragua. I wouldn’t say I was in trouble or I was in a bad place or a dark place but I needed a break you know, like, yesterday.”
The relentless pace of elite competition – and the drive to succeed – had taken its toll. But something else was also happening, as the world of freestyle skiing and its party lifestyle matched growing athleticism and mainstream appeal.
And as the sport evolved, so did Woods.
In November 2021, two months after the ice cream party in the quiet streets of Bormio, we find Woods again at a Freestyle World Cup in Austria.
The competition on the Stubai Glacier in Tyrol also serves as an Olympic qualifying event. It didn’t go well for Woods – he failed to qualify for the final, finishing 22nd.
Standing alone in a quiet corner of the athletes’ area, the Briton takes stock. Minutes earlier, reigning Olympic champion Sarah Hoefflin interrupted an interview to have a bottle of beer poured down her throat by one of her rivals. Woods is sober these days.
“When you’re a teenager and you get paid to ski around the world, people are interested in what you’re doing and you’re on the rise,” he says. “It’s pretty hard not to celebrate after a win. And someone wins every week.
“It was a great time, but it was also a different time. Nobody called us athletes. It was really…just action. Action all day, all day. night. Now there’s definitely an athletic aspect to it.
“I also crawl on 30 so I can’t get hungover. I’m much softer. I don’t drink at all anymore because I can’t hack it. It’s not for me.”
Woods finished the Stubai World Cup ranked 25th in the world. It left him dangerously close to missing out on a place at Beijing 2022 and, because of what was to come, all he could do was watch and hope.
Woods contracted Covid while competing in California in early January. As a result, when final qualifying at Font Romeu began in the French Pyrenees a week later, Woods was stuck in isolation on the outskirts of Los Angeles, powerless to prevent rivals from potentially ending his Olympic chances.
Disaster was averted. Woods only slipped to 27th in the world rankings and will therefore be in China to try to bring him luck for the third time, 15 years after leaving the dry slopes of Sheffield.
“The Olympics are the only thing I haven’t won and I would love to do that,” he says.
“All the ingredients are there – they’ve been there on the table the last two times, you know. So you have to go out there and take a chance. I can’t leave now, can I?
“The idea of retiring, quitting racing, packing skis, sticking them to the wall, getting a normal job, getting a house, going through this process… That’s not all just not close to the cards for me. If anything I want to do the crazy stuff I did with even more freedom.
“I’m still on the path to achieving my dreams because I dreamed of a lifestyle.”