Editor’s Note: This story was first published in the November 2013 (42.3) issue of POWDER. Both David Wise and Maddie Bowman, coached by Andy Woods and featured in this story, went on to win gold in the 2014 Sochi Olympics halfpipe events.
The Mammoth Mountain parking lot is empty, save for a few buses. But early May, even in a bad snow year, is still a good time to squeeze the last drops out of winter. From the High Five Express, I find the terrain park and the head coach of U.S. Freeskiing's halfpipe team. Andy Woods, wearing a Boston Red Sox cap, drags an airbag to the left wall of the pipe. He is calm, smiling, and making small talk about last night's NBA Finals game. His own team, a who's who of professional halfpipe skiers, such as Torin Yater-Wallace and David Wise, has yet to arrive.
Sunflower seeds scatter the ground. It feels like baseball spring training. For the head coach, a former slopestyle and halfpipe star, a man bred on traditional sports like basketball and baseball who at one time tried to walk away from skiing competition, this small private halfpipe is his field, his domain. And where the 31-year-old brings his team to prepare for what will be the most significant event in pipe skiing history—the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Woods lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He likes the climate as well as the proximity to his sister's family—notably, his niece and nephew. Years ago, Woods walked away from the halfpipe game after a string of injuries, ending a successful career.
Woods' ski path is the stuff of underdog lore. He was born in Georgia, Vermont, the tiny town north of Burlington. He learned to ski at Smugglers' Notch. At 16, he joined the mogul team at Sugarbush, but his attention, like so many others at that time, was drawn elsewhere.
"Because I was a mogul skier," says Woods, "I was a jumper." When Poor Boyz Productions released the film State of Mind in 1997, Woods, along with fellow members of Sugarbush's Diamond Dog Freestyle Team such as Roy Tuscany, Kasey Wry, and Bruce Hyde, watched it on repeat. They emulated the likes of J.F. Cusson and J.P. Auclair, trying switch 360s on flat-tailed mogul skis.
In the early 2000s, Mount Snow, Vermont, was a park-skiing mecca, hosting the 2000 and 2001 Winter X Games. The presence of the event engendered a strong park scene. A fresh-out-of-college filmmaker named Josh Berman was shooting his first ski film under the name Level 1 Productions. He took notice of Woods.
"He was one of the first skiers that I ever pointed a camera at," says Berman, who, as founder and director of Level 1, won Best Editing and Movie of the Year at the 2013 Powder Awards. "I remember shooting him while he stomped his first 1080 in the then-Stratton Snowboard Park and thinking, 'Damn, we've got a 10 on tape. This is going to be a legit movie.'"
He had no formal coaching experience. Even though he was looking to move beyond the ski world, the opportunity drew him back.
Through his dad, Woods scored a job in the Dynastar warehouse, which was then based in Williston, Vermont, packing and shipping ski orders. He was present when the first twin tips the company produced, called the Concept, arrived in North America.
"We got nine pairs," says Woods. "I ran over to where they were in the warehouse and was like, 'Oh, my God. They're real!'"
At 19, one year out of high school, Woods and friends talked at great length about going out to the U.S. Open in Vail, Colorado. They made a plan and Woods thought everyone was going to go. "It was a big deal," says Woods. When it came time to leave, everyone bailed. Well, almost everyone.
"My parents wanted to go," he says. "We'd never skied out at Vail before, so they decided we'd go as a family."
Woods competed in slopestyle, finishing in the top 20, and qualifying for the evening big air event. He envisioned his run prior to the practice.
"I had the idea in my head of doing a 1260, thinking, 'Maybe if I do this, I can get past the first couple rounds,'" he remembers. He attempted his first one in practice and crashed. When his turn to drop in the contest came, he swung for the fences.
And he landed it. Then he landed four more to take home the top spot on the podium. Jon Olsson and Jonny Moseley joined Woods in second and third place, respectively.
The win came as a surprise to the ski world and would launch Woods' career as a competitive skier. He filmed segments with Level 1 and Teton Gravity Research, won halfpipe events, and became known for his flawless left wall flair with a picture-perfect tail grab.
"I'm a Terry Francona kind of coach," says Woods, jokingly referring to the former Red Sox manager. "We don't want to have a team all of sudden show up and make everything weird and impose a ton of regulations."
Years prior, after he retired from competition, Woods would occasionally step into the judges' booth to score pipe events, but mostly he spent that time studying at the University of Utah, and then in Boston through the Harvard Extension School, taking classes on biomedical engineering, trying to escape the scene altogether. When halfpipe was added to the Olympics in 2011, ski agent Michael Spencer approached Woods about the available coaching position. He had no formal coaching experience. Even though he was looking to move beyond the ski world, the opportunity drew him back.
“What a lot of coaches say in basketball for a free throw is step up and knock it down. Don't hesitate. It's like a halfpipe trick. You don't hesitate.” -Andy Woods
"I think skiing is cool," says Woods. "I think backward skiing is cool. I think people are going to dig halfpipe skiing ."
He took the job in November 2011, one week before a U.S. Freeskiing camp started.
In Mammoth two years later, a few members of his team are hitting the airbag. Maddie Bowman is working on an alley-oop flat 5. Woods, standing at the base of the right wall, keeps a watchful eye. He is looking for flaws in takeoffs, little adjustments.
Woods' biggest challenge is putting convention into an unconventional sport. After all, the question remains: How does one actually coach halfpipe skiing?
"A lot of guys or girls need a 'this is what you're doing wrong' type of moment, and having a coach on the hill like Andy helps with that," says Wise, 23, the two-time Winter X Games gold medalist and one of the skiers vying for a spot on the U.S. Freeskiing Olympic roster.
"For me, mostly, we talk strategy," says Wise. "We talk about what runs I'm doing, what future runs I'm doing. We're both thinkers and we like to think it through and forecast where the sport is going so we can visualize what kind of run I want to do."
Woods' primary goal for his team heading into the Olympics is to relax. There are 11 days between the opening ceremonies on February 7 and the first day of competition on the 18th. "We're going to be hanging out in Sochi for about six days, which is way too long of a time," says Woods, as Bowman launches another flat 5 into the bag. "We'll go to other events and try to have a good, mellow Olympic experience. I'm hoping that helps when it comes to competition time, it's not an issue of acclimation."
As a coach, Woods serves as a mentor, knowing the ins and outs of a professional halfpipe career. In his time, he landed a lot of pipe runs, and consistency is something he feels he can help his team with.
"There are a lot of parallels with basketball and skiing," says Woods. "Shooting free throws is a lot like any sort of halfpipe trick in terms of execution. What a lot of coaches say in basketball for a free throw is step up and knock it down. Don't hesitate. It's like a halfpipe trick. You don't hesitate."
Bowman, an Olympic favorite for gold in women's halfpipe, steps up and throws her trick, landing softly on the airbag. Woods approaches her and quietly asks if she's ready to take it to snow. He feels she is. He steps back, pulls his Sox hat a little lower, blocking the gold sun.