Jossi Wells Interview | New Zealand Skier Discusses His Hopes, Fears, And Slacklining Efforts For Flying Frenchies Film ‘The Free Man’
The X Games gold medalist talks frankly about fear, his latest film, and rates Team GB's medal chances at the Olympics
Words by Sam Haddad
When I think of the Kiwi freeskier Jossi Wells, I tend to picture half-pipes and slopestyle courses. I think of him claiming X Games glory and narrowly missing out on a Winter Olympic medal in Sochi. And his slick black and white shots on Instagram. So it’s something of a surprise to be watching him gingerly step out onto a highline, that is a tight-rope suspended between two cliffs, at over 2,500m above sea level in the gnarly French ski mountain of Brevent in Chamonix.
I’m not watching him in person, thankfully, as the tension would be too much to bear and the weather looks awful. His legs are wobbling and the drop below him appears infinite. He’s roped in at the ankle but I can’t be the only one wondering if it will hold when he falls, which he does seconds later, springing up with a fierce bounce. He clings to the wire like a terrified child, his relief palpable.
"It doesn’t give you much security when you’re hanging that high off the ground and seeing that big void."
The scene takes place in The Free Man, a new documentary featuring Jossi Wells and the Flying Frenchies, a group of acrobatic and slightly surrealist French slackliners and wingsuiters. The premise is to take Wells out of the world of professional freeskiing and to the edge of his comfort zone. The Flying Frenchies, according to the film’s blurb, believe: “Conquering fear on this level is the only way we can be truly free."
I caught up with Wells to ask about the experience and find out how he’d felt that day at the top of Brevent, as a highline novice in such a ridiculously frightening and dramatic location. “It was completely insane," he laughs, “it was scary, and the weather made it really intense. People say because I’m a skier and do big jumps I must not be afraid of heights but it’s very different when you’re hanging out there on top of the highline. It’s like: ‘See you later!’ You have a rope next to you but that’s a tiny thought in the back of your head. It doesn’t give you much security when you’re hanging that high off the ground and seeing that big void."
The fear Wells felt was incomparable to how he feels at the top of a freestyle skiing course. He says: “I’ve practised since I was two years old on skis, and slowly built myself up over time. The jumps I do now don’t faze me too much, but this was so intense as I was so novice at it. I’ve never been in that position before. I went from doing it a foot off the ground to doing it a few metres off the ground, to doing it thousands of metres above the valley floor it was terrifying!"
I ask when Wells first met the Flying Frenchies? “About a year and a half ago, when we started talking about the documentary. I didn’t think I’d heard of them but when I went out to France and met up with them I recognised the guys from watching videos online of them wingsuiting."
“People often think wingsuiters and base jumpers are crazy… but after hanging out with them… I realised we have the same things that push us."
Thanks to clips involving clowns slacklining, human catapults and daring first descents with wingsuits, the Flying Frenchies have quite the viral following. What did Wells make of them? “It was quite eye opening. I’m just a skier, I’d never been interested in becoming a wingsuiter or a base jumper, but after the trip with those guys getting to do the highline and the rope jump at the end, I understand why those guys do what they do more now."
Does he think there are similarities between what he does and what the Flying Frenchies do? “People often think wingsuiters and base jumpers are crazy and that they’re out there for a more adrenaline-chasing thing than I want to do. But after hanging out with them for that time and getting to know them, I realised they are very similar to me. We have the same things that push us."
“The mindset you have to have, the confidence that it takes, it’s very similar to what I do. I never really thought I was chasing an adrenaline hit, I thought it was just something that I’d loved to do, a skill event. But when I was able to do that stuff with them I was able to realise the connection between the two. I do get a lot of adrenaline when I do what I do and that does interest me."
Does he think coping with fear is a genetic thing or something you can learn? “With what I do, it’s a very skill-based sport. The hard thing is overcoming a new trick on a big jump, trying to overcome that fear while incorporating the skill that you’ve learnt, so it’s a lot to think about."
“When it came to the highline you had to think about it the entire time, to try and relax and clear your head the whole time, it didn’t stop. Where as skiing you have to do that before you drop in, but then once you’ve committed you’ve got to let it flow. And that was a different thing for me, when I’m dropping in I’m not having to focus like crazy, it happens intrinsically because I’ve been skiing for so long, I can switch off but on the highline it was so hard."
Would he do the highline again? “I’m really busy with contests [ahead of next winter’s Olympics] and my training so I have to pick what I do with my time wisely. I haven’t done it but if those guys called me up and I had time I’d jump straight on a plane. The rush at the time was so intense. But my first love is action sports, that’s what I’ve done for so long."
“And to be at the top of my game I have to spend 100 per cent of my time and energy on the skiing thing. I’m just 100 per cent focused on that now."
One of the main stars of the Flying Frenchies, Tancrede Melet, died last January in a hot air balloon accident. Wells hadn’t worked with Melet directly but was saddened by his death. He says: “I never had the chance to meet him. But getting to know them [the Flying Frenchies], they’re such a tight crew… I was really honoured that they opened up to me and took me into their crew during that time, and took me on the highline, it was a really big thing."
"To bring a bit of humour into it could be a way of overcoming that fear and trying to make light of a very intense situation."
There’s an enjoyable amount of farce and clowning around in the video clips which the Flying Frenchies make. I ask Wells what he thinks about that unique side of them? He says: “There are lots of different characters in action sports and along with being good at the discipline you’ve got to have some charisma, to have your own thing going on. Those guys have their thing, and to do what they’re doing it’s so on the edge and intense. And to bring a bit of humour into it could be a way of overcoming that fear and trying to make light of a very intense situation."
You wouldn’t get that in freeskiing so much now it’s in the Olympics? “I do a professional sport. I do the X Games and the Olympics. I have sponsors and as something becomes more professional as athletes we have to conduct ourselves professionally. Those guys don’t have any limitations on what they’re doing, they’re just there, they’re not getting judged against the next person wingsuiting or for the highest score or trying to go to the Olympics with a lot of other competitors so it’s very different."
I ask Wells how his preparation for the next Olympics is going? “I’m feeling good at the moment and confident going into the games. At the last games I messed up my runs in the finals of slopestyle and came 4th for half pipe so I’ve got some unfinished business."
He also tells me he’s been enjoying hanging out with the Team GB freeskiers at contests. He says: “Woodsy is my closest friend on the tour. He learnt to ski on a dry slope and he’s mixing it with the best in the world, it’s a very cool story, especially for kids in the UK. It goes to show, whatever your dreams are if you want it bad enough you can make it happen. It’s very inspiring."
“Katie Summerhayes is riding really well. They’re a cool crew; Pat Sharples the coach is a great guy. The GB and NZ team, we’re all friends, bringing the commonwealth haha."
I ask Wells whether his time away with the Flying Frenchies was a breath of fresh air for his skiing? If he enjoyed being taken to the far edge of his comfort zone?
“I don’t think it necessarily was creatively. But to be so far outside my comfort zone left me feeling very vulnerable and that was a huge inspiration when I got back on my skis, to maybe push it a little further and get even further out of my comfort zone. With anything in life if you’re pushing it at 100 per cent all those things are going to have a chain reaction. It made me ski better, it was such an inspiring time."