Airs To The Throne | James Woods & Katie Summerhayes on the Future of Freestyle Skiing
"We needed results to reignite any chance of British skiing surviving…and they delivered."
Words by Sam Haddad | Main photo James Woods by Jenny Bletcher
Before the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, if you’d asked my Mum and Dad to name a famous British skier they’d have said Eddie the Eagle. If you ask them now they’ll say the boy with the hair. Meaning James Woods or Woodsy. The long-haired Sheffield-born skier who looks a bit like Skrillex. As you can probably guess they’re not snow people, so unless a skier or snowboarder makes it onto the BBC Breakfast sofa or the home page of their favourite news site it will pass them by.
We weren’t part of the ski set when I was growing up, and my love of snowsports didn’t start until my 20s when a friend told me I’d like snowboarding. He was right. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to try skiing back then. Snowboarding looked super fun and a natural extension of skateboarding, which I’d loved as a kid. It looked like the future, while skiing looked stuffy and backwards, the preserve of a small group of posh people from Fulham who wore red cords.
As it turned out a season in Chamonix would change those views and teach me how awesome and progressive skiing could be. But those first impressions mattered because they’d put me off skiing in the first place. And while a love of Torvill and Dean led my parents to take me ice-skating, no skier ever trickled down into their consciousness enough to make them think skiing would be a good thing for me to try.
"At the Ski & Snowboard Show in London last week kids swarmed around their freeskiing heroes to get selfies and posters signed"
Today, the picture could not be more different. Skiing seems to be in an exciting place again. UK snow domes and dry slopes are buzzing and of the 50,609 people who have taken part in Snowsport England’s Go Ski Go Board scheme since 2013 at least half tried skiing. At the Ski & Snowboard Show in London last week kids swarmed around their freeskiing heroes to get selfies and posters signed. And huge crowds whooped as said athletes sessioned the Big Air, with the skiers getting just as much love as the snowboarders.
So what went right? The inclusion of freeskiing slopestyle and half pipe in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was a big help. There will always be a core of skiers and snowboarders who feel ambivalent about the Olympics but in this country the public takes note of Olympics stars, whatever their sport, as do the funding bodies. And they pay special attention to those with the potential to podium as was the case with Woodsy and Katie Summerhayes before Sochi. As it turned out in Russia they were both nursing injuries but still finished a hugely impressive 5th and 7th respectively.
"They’d had very little support but had got themselves knocking on the door of world level."
Those results were higher than we’ve finished at any skiing event in the Olympics since Gina Hathorn finished 4th in the slalom in 1968, if Wikipedia serves me correctly. And what’s more both Woodsy, who is now 24, and Katie Summerhayes, who is 21, had reached the top of their sports, as shown by their multiple X Games invites with barely any funding.
Konrad Bartelski, a former British downhill skier who finished 10th in the men’s downhill at the 1980s Olympics (a position no other British skier has achieved for almost 30 years) tells me: “The great thing with Woodsy and Katie and Pat Sharples their coach is that if you look back to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, they really had no support or funding. It was all about alpine skiing." (In case you’re wondering alpine is downhill and slalom racing as opposed to freestyle which is skiing in the park and pipe).
But in 2012, when it was announced freestyle skiing would be in the Olympics the then British Ski and Snowboard Performance Director Paddy Mortimer was able to secure some funding from UK Sport on the basis of how well world class athletes such as Woodsy, Katie Summerhayes and Rowan Cheshire were performing (and of course Jenny Jones, Jamie Nicholls, Billy Morgan and Aimee Fuller in snowboarding).
Bartelski continues: “[Mortimer] was very impressed with the energy, application and fortitude of those coming out of the GB park and pipe teams. They’d had very little support but had got themselves knocking on the door of world level. They worked for things."
“We needed to come back with some results to stimulate some interest in skiing, to reignite any chance of British skiing surviving and as it turns out we got six top 10 results all in the park and pipe team and a bronze medal for Jenny Jones, which has never been done before in snowsports. Those people delivered."
"We needed results to reignite any chance of British skiing surviving…those people delivered."
After Sochi as is the case with each Summer Games now, UK Sport beefed up the funding for the sports which had done well, specifically park and pipe, rather than alpine.
As a former alpine skier did Bartelski feel conflicted about the glory and funding coming more on the freestyle not the alpine side? “No, I don’t have any qualms with what people are doing on the mountain as long as they’re doing something. If they’re sliding sideways or upside down in the air, as long as they’ve got a smile on their face and they’re enjoying the mountains…"
“And the great thing about the park and pipe group is that they’re stimulating a new area of the market and inspiring young kids."
For Bartelski it’s important that skiing appeals to everyone in the country, not just those with money. He says: “When I started racing I wanted skiing to appeal beyond the Times and the Telegraph readers. Then in the early 1980s you had Ski Sunday and the excitement that built with David Vine’s dulcet tones and you had some Brits doing reasonably well on the circuit too and a quarter of a million school kids going on holidays and taxi drivers going on ski holidays… But then in 1988 the government stopped state schools running ski trips during term time so that killed it."
“And it deprived kids of benefits beyond the skiing such as dealing with a different currency, eating foreign food, learning geography… Plus with skiing you can be large and not athletic but still progress as well as someone who is already good at football, cricket, tennis or rugby in your class. It’s a great leveller."
Why does he think this current crop of talent took up freestyle skiing over downhill? “With alpine there’s a hell of a long commitment, but what was happening with indoor ski slopes and dry slopes was kids were showing up and realising they could learn a few tricks on their skateboards and then go and play on a snowboard in the indoor fridges. It made it more accessible to a broader group and that’s what James Woods represents."
“If you look at his background, he shows anybody can get out and express themselves and enjoy the mountains. I follow him on facebook and instagram and the life that he’s made himself from that and what he’s learnt…he goes to New Zealand and all these incredible places, it’s a great reward for his commitment."
On an early morning Skype call to Woodsy in New Zealand before he heads up the hill I ask him how he got into skiing. He says: “The Sheffield Ski Village dry slopes happened to be real close to my house and right next to the skate park I always went to. When I was about 10 years old a local newspaper was offering free skiing or snowboarding lessons and boom."
What did he think about skiing before he went? “I didn’t know what skiing was. None of family skied, none of my friends skied, it was a completely foreign concept."
“Skiing was cheaper for the season pass than snowboarding. Job done."
How did he get hooked? “A good few weeks after that first time my mum said: ‘You were good at skiing why don’t you try it again?’ So I went back and got more into it."
Given that he skated at the time, was he not tempted to try snowboarding? “Skiing came around as it was actually cheaper to buy the season pass where you could rent skis than it was to do snowboarding. Job done."
When did he start to thinking it could be a big part of his life? “After a little while of just enjoying the thrill, someone came around to my house and put in the VHS of the ski movie Happy Dayz and that’s when I decided: ‘Oh this is what I’m doing.’"
Woodsy did ski racing and moguls and then when snowflex was invented and the dry slopes started having rails and jumps he got into freestyle.
He says: “Moguls were so much fun. I was enjoying every second of the whole ski experience but freestyle, the jumping around and hitting rails, was the last kind of shiny new aspect to it so it was the one I ended up being the most excited about for the longest."
“The word community gets thrown around a lot but there really was a community at Sheffield Ski Village, some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met from all different walks of life. I took a lot from that, and still do."
Both Katie and her younger sister Molly Summerhayes, a former Junior World Half pipe Champion, who is now 19, also started skiing at Sheffield Ski Village, when they were just 4 and 6. And they too would also be later coached and inspired by Pat Sharples. Their dad worked nearby and could see the dry slope from his canteen. Katie says: “He wanted something fun for the family to do together; it was perfect. Pretty soon we were obsessed, so they learnt too. Our mum and dad had to drag us off the slope at 11pm on a Friday night, even now they do."
Molly adds: “I don’t want to know how many hours they’ve spent waiting for us. I would literally not make eye contact with them so I could get on the lift again."
"Our mum and dad had to drag us off the slope at 11pm on a Friday night, even now they do."
Their parents saved to take them to Canada each winter, as Katie says: “Because they saw that we loved it so much so rather than going to Spain or wherever in summer we’d go skiing in winter."
Do they worry people think it’s a rich person’s sport?
Molly says: “I think a lot of people don’t understand how cheap it can be. When I was in college people would say: ‘You must have a lot of money as you go skiing,’ but I’d say: ‘Not really. To pay for a session at the ski village was so cheap, it was £10 and even now snow domes aren’t that expensive."
Katie adds: “And you can get second hand equipment so cheaply from eBay or buy stuff from Decathlon, there are ways to make it cheaper."
Both sisters raced downhill, did moguls and did freestyle too. Katie says: “I raced until I was about 16 and if I’d not done freestyle I would have done racing. Even when I was obsessed with freestyle my parents made me to race for the technique and I definitely think it was good for me. I’m such a competitive person, I did love it."
Molly was the same and says: “I do actually miss racing now, going through the gates and stuff. I wish I could do a couple of days during the winter to do a GS, or after training so hard doing jumps to just go and have fun going through the poles."
"When kids are going to the ski hire shop they’re not picking up racing skis they’re picking up twin tips."
The BBC got record viewing figures at the last Winter Olympics notably for the freeski and snowboard events. A trend which was mirrored globally, to the extent the IOC has now added big air skiing and snowboarding to the programme for the next Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Why does Bartelski think park and pipe piqued the public interest? “Visually it’s very impressive, so it caught people’s imagination and skiing became aspirational again. Woodsy is expressive and artistic. But when kids are going to the ski hire shop they’re not picking up racing skis they’re picking up twin tips."
But he tells me the reaction on the alpine side of skiing hasn’t always been so positive. He says: “It’s clear the park and pipe athletes are of the highest calibre, but some of the parents of alpine skiers would never see that. They would see it as a bunch of lazy louts doing fancy tricks. But you don’t get to world class level without putting a lot of work in no matter how talented you are."
He also thinks the park and pipe athletes tend to have chosen their sports themselves, which he isn’t sure is always the case with the alpine athletes. He says: “What you find with the park and pipe team is the kids have chosen to do it not the parents. They’ve taken ownership and this is a key thing. It’s not about pleasing the parents."
"It’s not about pleasing the parents."
Katie Summerhayes roomed with Chemmy Alcott, probably the most high-profile downhill skier of the last 15 years, in Sochi. How did Alcott feel about the growth in freestyle? “She was always really supportive. I think because she’s been the only skier girl for years and then we all came along and we had such a laugh. At night we’d try on each other’s outfits and I’d be there in Chemmy’s skin suit and she’d be there in my baggy clothing. We’d laugh so hard every night."
Though unlucky with injury Alcott was never an Olympic medal prospect in the way that many of the park and pipe team are so it’s hard to imagine UK Sport funding her in the same way it currently funds them. I ask Katie if the UK Sport money has made a big difference? “It’s changed everything. We have the opportunity to get away as much as possible. And we can make the most of psychologists, physios, nutritionists and coaches, they’ve just brought in an acrobatic coach." Bring on the next Winter Olympics.
I ask Woodsy how it feels to be one of the saviours of British skiing in this country? He laughs and says: “That’s flattering thank you. All I know is that I love skiing, having fun and pushing myself and a million other things…what people think is up to them and if they support what I’m doing that makes me proud."
“Pyeongchang is going to be really fun. I went there this past season for a World Cup and a test event for the Olympics and everything is on point. It is going to be a show!" If the freestyle skiing park and pipe team keep ramping it up, it really will. And we’ll all be watching.