Growing up Woodsy
Once you get past the novelty of freeskier James Woods -- that he became an X Games and Olympic slopestyle medal favorite despite learning to ski on plastic bristles in snow-starved Sheffield, England -- you are left with "Woodsy," a wide-eyed, high-on-life kid with a flowing blond mane and more energy than a preschooler hopped up on birthday cake.
This is not the skier the world will see in Aspen or Sochi, as he spins across the television screen in blurry bursts of switch double corks and octograbs. But it is the essence of the man, the most-cited key to his success by people who know him best, the personification of being oneself and thriving because of it.
"I just relate to people who want to do something," Woods says over a raspberry smoothie. He is sitting in a coffee shop in his winter training base of Breckenridge, Colo., in early December. He has a look of enthrallment to him, as if someone just dropped him in paradise and he still can't believe he made it.
His jacket rings, and Woods reaches into his pocket to fetch a large smartphone. Until one year ago, he had never carried a phone. He began exploring Europe on his own when he was 15, toting just a ski bag and backpack, using the paltry prize money from each competition to get to the next event. He didn't have enough money for a phone and, truth be told, he says, was perfectly content without one.
Then global telecommunications giant Samsung offered him a sponsorship in December 2012.
"I was like, 'Yeah, OK,' and they gave me this really fancy smartphone," he says, cradling it. "I went from zero to hero in technology."
The Samsung deal signified what many have believed for a while. Woods is on the precipice of rare stardom for a European action sports star, especially in his native country. No British man or woman has ever won an Olympic medal on snow, but after claiming bronze at X Games Aspen last year and winning the FIS World Cup slopestyle title, the bubbly 21-year-old who still cuts his own hair is primed to be the first.
Growing up in Sheffield, Woods was a normal Yorkshire County lad, which is to say he spent ample time skateboarding, roller blading, rock climbing and playing soccer, rugby and hockey. One day when he was 10, he saw a newspaper ad for free ski and snowboard lessons at Sheffield Ski Village, the local dry slope facility, which is visible from the city center. No one in his family had ever skied or snowboarded.
"It was summer holidays, and I just remember it being stinkin' hot," he says. "And I remember loven' it."
Woods signed up for every ski session offered, joining a tight-knit collection of kids who zipped down the toothbrush bristles for hours on end. In a city of abandoned steel factories and rugby league fanatics, the Sheffield Ski Village fast became known as a youth freeskiing hotbed, despite offering a slope that was only 50 meters long.
"Our lap times are much shorter," says Pat Sharples, Woods' coach and the patriarch of British freeskiing. Sharples signed Woods to ski for Salomon when he was 12, after he had just won the British national championship in Laax, Switzerland -- his first time hitting jumps that weren't plastic.
Not that he will ever accept a wink of sympathy for his alternative roots.
"I don't feel in any way like I was deprived. I feel just the same as anyone else," Woods says. "Even though our jumps were tiny, it was still enough to whiz off a ."
According to Sharples, who coaches the 11-member British slopestyle and halfpipe team, Woods was one of a handful of local kids with elite potential. "All the best skiers in the U.K. were coming out of Sheffield," Sharples says.
Sheffield, however, can be a tough city to break out of. Tentacles surround you.
"There was a lot of drinking, and there were a lot of drugs," Woods says. "It was scary. It was very much the thing to do and a very tempting path to take. When all your friends are sort of doing it, like even the ski friends, that was difficult."
So why didn't he join them?
"I was watching TV with my mom and dad when I was fairly young," Woods says, "and someone on the TV couldn't go into America because they'd been caught with drugs when they were a kid. I asked my parents, 'Oh, is that, like, real? Would they really not let you in the country?' And they were like, 'Yeah, that's really serious.'"
Inspired by the lone European to dominate the North Americans at the Winter X Games -- France's Candide Thovex -- Woods stayed up to the wee hours of the morning watching the competition on television. He has always been motivated to be the best he can be, but his only real goal, he says, was to someday drop in to the Aspen X Games course as a competitor. The sitcom story stuck in his head as he got older.
"It turned into I'm either going to do drugs in Sheffield and never do X Games or do X Games and never do drugs," Woods says. "That was how I lived my life."
Determined to earn a place among the best slopestyle skiers in the world, Woods booked a one-way ticket to Colorado when he was 16. The following year, he skied his way onto the Dew Tour, and in 2012, he was invited to Aspen as an X Games alternate.
"I skied my heart out in training. Every run I just went hammers and hammers," Woods recalls. "At the end, I got to the top of the course just hoping to do another practice run, and the lady said, 'I'm afraid we don't need you.' It happens; I was an alternate. But I just broke down crying right there."
He finally got his first X Games start last year and stunned the field by qualifying No. 1. In the final, he was the only skier to post two scores in the 90s and took bronze behind Nick Goepper and Henrik Harlaut.
For all his happy-go-lucky charm, Woods leaves little to chance when it comes to his skiing. He works closely on technical issues with Sharples and retains a London-based chiropractor and performance coach in Dr. Carlyle Jenkins, who, like Sharples, began working with Woodsy when he was 12.
"He's constantly looking for ways to get his body to do things that he's never seen other people do," Jenkins says.
For example, adding an octograb -- the rarely seen two-handed, double-ski grab that Charles Gagnier invented a decade ago -- to his switch double cork 1080s.
"I don't concentrate on what it looks like. I concentrate on what it feels like," Woods says. "I think if it feels good, it'll look good."
Woods is well known for his loyalty -- he has turned down more lucrative sponsorship offers to stick with those who gave him a chance early on -- and his self-assuredness. "Even at 16 he was never intimidated by anything or anybody," says Faction Skis founder Tony McWilliam, who tried to recruit him a few years ago, to no avail. "I don’t mean that in an aggressive way. He's just an open and honest person. He’d talk to anybody and everybody. It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, he treated each person equally and with a genuine interest in who they were."
Sharples says more young freeskiers in England now believe they can compete with the world's best because Woods has done it. His influence reaches even further with some.
Katie Summerhayes, another Sheffield skier who competes on the world circuit and who counts Woods as her best friend and mentor, tells a story of him staying long after the dry slopes closed one Thursday night six years ago as she fought the fear of trying a new trick. He stood next to her for 40 minutes, repeating the same thing every time she doubted herself: "I know you can do it."
Now 18, Summerhayes hopes to win an Olympic medal in slopestyle.
It turned into I’m either going to do drugs in Sheffield and never do X Games or do X Games and never do drugs. That was how I lived my life.James Woods
One bitter element within Woods' otherwise sweet journey is the fate of Sheffield Ski Village. Two years ago, the facility burned to the ground. The owners told the local newspaper it would never reopen.
"That breaks my heart," Woods says, "because it was the best time skiing that I've ever had -- still."
It is easy to imagine Woods revitalizing his hometown ski scene someday. Maybe in a few years. When he wills something to happen, it often does.
"He came from a group of kids his age who were all exceptionally good skiers," Sharples says. "But I do believe, even when he was a little kid and a lot of kids were dreaming of going to the X Games and winning medals, he absolutely believed that it was going to happen. And it did. He made it happen for himself."