Winter Olympics: Sheffield’s James Woods targets golden flourish on slopes of Beijing

The interview is barely two minutes old and James Woods has dropped the word ‘rad’ into conversation three times already.

The ski park outside Beijing where he will contest his third Olympics is ‘rad’.

The rails on the slopestyle course where he will bid to go at least one better than his fourth-place finish at the PyeongChang Games four years ago are ‘rad’.

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And his general feeling on the eve of his latest Olympic challenge guessed it, ‘pretty rad’; short for radical for the uninitiated.

Sheffield's James Woods trains at the Genting Snow Park A & M Stadium ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

James Woods is everything you want in an extreme sports junkie; long hair, husky voice, cool vocabulary.

So free-spirited in fact that prior to the Winter Olympics and the X Games last month, Woods went surfing and spear-fishing in Nicaragua.

But behind the long hair and the shades lies a steely determination, rather more befitting of a young man whose journey to extreme sports stardom began on the dry ski slopes of the Steel City.

“The only reason I compete is to win,” says the 30-year-old from Sheffield, who also has a fifth-place finish on his Olympic debut in Sochi eight years ago.

James Woods celebrates after winning the Men's Ski Slopestyle Final at the FIS Freestyle Ski World Championships in February 2019 at Park City, Utah. Picture: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

“That’s why I’m here. There’s no sugar-coating that.”

There have been plenty of wins through the years for the freestyle skier, most notably at world championships and at the X Games.

The Olympics would crown them all.

“It’s not like my life won’t be complete without a medal,” he says. “But there’s no tomorrow after any event, you have to give it your 100 per cent.

James Woods competes during the Freestyle Skiing Men's slopestyle Aerial Qualification at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images.

“If not; one, why are you here and two, if you struggle with commitment in this game it’s probably not going to be good for you.”

Commitment is never something that Woods has struggled with. From the very first time he set foot at the Sheffield dry ski slopes he was hooked.

“There was a free ski and snowboard lesson in the paper,” he begins. “I was 10, I did it in the summer on the hottest day of the year, it was ridiculous, I had no idea what I was getting into.

“I was a nifty, quick runner, I could do lots of sports. It’s not hard to start doing these things, the fun happens quite quickly especially when you’re a kid.

James Woods trains at the Genting Snow Park A & M Stadium ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

“I don’t come from a skiing family, I had no idea about snow and mountains at all, what attracted me to the sport and extreme sports culture was the people.

“Amazing people, passionate people that really loved what they were doing and really aspire to something, not necessarily competitions, but a profound love for what they were doing, and that hit me square in the face when I was 10 years old. I was addicted to it and the people around it.”

Every week he would go back to the rails and half-pipes to try and outdo the trick he had managed the previous visit. Every week became every day.

“The trajectory never wavered because the passion never stopped,” says Woods, the icon of the ‘Fridge Kids’, a bunch of adrenaline junkies that included Katie Summerhayes, herself a three-time Olympian in Beijing, that met at the dry ski slopes in Sheffield.

“Your improvement in skiing is quite tangible. You become addicted to the next achievement, the next trick you’re going to hit.

“I realised I’d got comfortable in that discomfort.”

Sheffield's James Woods, pictured during the Freestyle Skiing Men's slopestyle final at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Picture: Nils Petter Nilsson/Getty Images

Sponsors soon came calling and by his late teens Woods was already travelling the world competing, winning, trying new tricks.

“I actually struggle calling it a sport,” he says, “it’s actually an art form to me. It’s my passion.”

But skiing is also his job, and with that brings pressure, particularly in an Olympics, the biggest shop window for most sports.

“We put everything into skiing for the longest time, it’s absolutely my passion but it’s also my job.

“I’ve gone through those periods where I’ve had ups and downs, because it’s my job. I’m putting all that effort into, it’s at times like this, at an Olympics, that you reap the benefits.

“People are interested in the sport, they’re intrigued by what you’re up to. It’s not that I wouldn’t be doing this if people weren’t interested but it’s cool to look around every once in a while and be like ‘holy cow, this is happening’.”

Having achieved so much outside of Olympic competition, there has been expectancy in the past that Woods will deliver on the biggest stage.

In Sochi he was hampered by injury and finished fifth in the slopestyle final. He improved by one place in PyeongChang.

Now 30, and despite his body being the ‘best it’s felt for 20 years’ as he puts it, expectancy has given way to the romantic notion of the perfect career arc ending with a medal in Beijing.

“There’s always pressure, but there’s no external pressure on me that’s bigger than the pressure I put on myself,” he says.

“I do enjoy competing, I love free-skiing, it’s everything in my life, I owe everything to it.

“Pressure is what makes you perform, it’s how you deal with it. I want to go out there and give it my best, so there will be pressure for sure.”

He has two chances of making the podium in Beijing, Big Air on Monday and Wednesday followed by slopestyle the following Monday and Tuesday.

Big Air is one jump off a 60-foot ramp with a number of tricks to impress the judges, while slopestyle sees competitors ski down a course full of rails and jumps.

“The bigger the better for me, and it’s big,” Woods says of his early impressions of the slopestyle course. “Firstly the pitch is really steep so that means there’s plenty of speed.

“The landings are long and they are wide, which gives you more to play with.

“It looks rad, the rails are big, so I would like to think that it does play into my hands.

“Ours is a subjective sport,” he says of the judging. “You really have to go there and deliver your best and see what other people think about it.

“Sometimes you have to swallow your pride, sometimes you walk out on top.”

If he does, Woods will become the first Yorkshireman to win a Winter Olympic medal, incomprehensible to that 10-year-old on the dry ski slopes on a hot summer’s day.

“Someone asked me the other day, do you still feel that connection to Sheffield and I was like ‘oh my goodness of course I do’,” he beams.

“Although I’m not always there I’m always representing Sheffield and the UK. I actually feel very connected.

“I don’t get to spend much time there because I’m skiing non-stop, that’s a side-effect of being single-minded and chasing your goals.

“Especially when people look to you as representing a place. It’s home. You can’t get away from it.”

It would be pretty ‘rad’ if after all these years, after all those youngsters at Sheffield’s dry ski slopes that he inspired to be better, James Woods got the Olympic medal his story deserves.