By Martyn Herman
LONDON, Jan 10 (Reuters) - A Yorkshire lad who learned to ski on an inner-city Sheffield dry slope that has since burned to the ground is Britain's best hope for an Olympic gold medal in Sochi and James Woods admits the prospect still feels "insane".
Woodsy, as he prefers to be known in freestyle skiing circles, is one of the favourites for the new Olympic discipline of slopestyle that will debut in the Russian resort in February and has found himself thrust into the limelight.
A recent appearance in gossip magazine Hello had Woods ditch the baggy outfits of the fashion-conscious freestyle world for a smart suit, although the black sneakers he wore with red laces betrayed his free-spirited nature.
Woods, who wears a mop of ginger hair, sometimes shaved down one side, admits that the traditional Alpine disciplines of downhill and slalom cramped his style.
When he first took up skiing on the bristles of his local slope, he quickly gravitated to the 'other side', away from the stopwatches and slalom gates, to learn some of the freestyle tricks that he hopes will impress the judges in Sochi.
"As the moguls guys started branching off and free skiing I just moved over with them," Woods said of the days when rather than come home from school and kick a football around, he headed for the former steel city's then impressive "ski village".
"They opened a tiny half pipe and a jump and had different matting which made it safer to jump. I just gravitated towards the non-racers, it was natural. I must have gone to that little dry slope a million times.
"It was just another excuse to go out on school nights."
So natural, in fact, that Woods is a five-time British champion and last season was ranked number one in the World Cup and took the silver medal at the world championships in Norway behind American Tom Wallisch, one of his main rivals for the slopestyle gold in Sochi.
Woods laughs when talking about himself as an Olympian.
"It's insane really, I have to pinch myself sometimes thinking I'm going to be at the Olympics with elite athletes, he told Reuters. "I'm just exploring my own little adventure.
"I find it strange to call myself an athlete. We do work very hard but it's more of a lifestyle than a sport.
"It's weird that slopestyle's now in the Olympics, I wouldn't have thought it as it's not mainstream.
"But if the IOC (International Olympic Committee) want us in, I'm not going to pass up the chance of representing my country."
While the skis look conventional, apart from having tips at both ends so jumps can be taken backwards, slopestyle is a world away from the more established Alpine disciplines.
Artistry and imagination, rather than raw speed and power, are the main requirements, although launching yourself off a ramp and somersaulting high above the snow requires courage.
"It's not a race. We kind of invent our way down the course," Woods said. "You get to the course with your bag of tricks, then you've got about a minute to express yourself. Basically just "show-off" actually.
"There are no ground rules really, as long as you stay on the course. It's your playground.
"It's very 'out there' action. You don't want to psyche up too much. I just mellow out and feel it."
Like most top freestylers Woods competes on the Association of Freestyle Professionals (AFP) Tour and the X Games where he took the bronze medal this year in Aspen.
Some diehard freestylers view the Olympics as "too mainstream" and feel the International Ski Federation (FIS) has muscled into their backyard but Woods is happy if the sport is to reach a wider audience.
"(FIS) haven't taken over. We're not going all mainstream all of a sudden but it does mean there are more competitions and more media which is fantastic," he said.
"There are people out there who will take the X Games more seriously than the Olympics, they may even decide not to do the Olympics, but there is certainly no bad taste and I feel that most of us are grateful."
With the Olympics to be screened to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world the stakes have never been higher for Woods and his fellow showmen and women but while competition will be intense, the brotherhood will remain intact.
"Freestyle is a wonderful environment," he said. "It's always a party atmosphere. It's true it's a bit quieter at big competitions, but it's not like other sports.
"When you get to the start gate, you get the others guys stoked for you, they are your friends. Really we are all just pushing the sport. There's a great camaraderie.
"Maybe in the build-up to the Olympics some people have some new tricks they are not sharing but it's a brotherhood and I hope the Olympics portrays that."
Freestyle skiing has taken Woods to the earth's extremes, a long way from the city made famous by the movie 'The Full Monty'.
"It's taken me to some really weird places. I think how the heck did I get here," Woods, who has competed in the world's most southerly city, Ushuaia in Patagonia.
"I was like crikey, what the heck am I doing down here with scary dogs and shanty towns? Then again it wasn't that different, I'm from Sheffield."
A trip to the top step of an Olympic podium might provoke a similar reaction, although there is a fierce determination when Woods says he will not just be in Sochi for the ride.
"I went to the end of the world in Argentina, to be top of the podium would be a dream, I would love that." (Reporting by Martyn Herman. Editing by Patrick Johnston)