Jossi Wells: Breaking his neck to return

By David Leggat

Freeskier Jossi Wells during the launch of the New Zealand Winter Olympic team uniform held at Earnslaw Park on the waterfront of Queenstown. Photo / Photosport
Freeskier Jossi Wells during the launch of the New Zealand Winter Olympic team uniform held at Earnslaw Park on the waterfront of Queenstown. Photo / Photosport

Being injured, as champion winter athlete Jossi Wells reflected this week, is "never cool".

But in the case of the Wanaka free skier, there was good to come out of his lengthy layoff a couple of years ago, after he broke his neck.

Neck breaks broadly fall into two categories - having seriously bad, sometimes fatal consequences, or a lucky escape. For Wells, it was the latter.

But the recuperation period, around five months, was time well spent.

Wells heads off shortly for the start of the 2018 Winter Olympic qualifying programme, along with a host of other New Zealand athletes. Leaving home just as the sun comes out is part of the deal for people who chase the cold.

His company will include his three brothers, Byron, Beau-James and Jackson. It's a lay down misere they are New Zealand's first family of winter sports.

Jossi, New Zealand's best-known and arguably most accomplished winter sports athlete, is the senior figure who mentors the up and comers and is held in the highest esteem by those in the sport.

He finished fourth in the slopestyle event at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014... but let's drop back to that potentially life-changing moment. He was at Thredbo in New South Wales' Snowy Mountains at an event called the One Trick Wonder. It was September 2014.
Wells launched into a trick and "I cocked it up", he quipped.

Injuries are part and parcel of the sport and the Wells' brothers have all had their fitness challenges. Indeed, Beau-James, will have a late start to his European/North American campaign, recovering from ACL surgery.

But this was bad and Jossi knew it. If there's one thing that sticks out of a conversation of any length of time with him, it is a strong sense of positivity.

He had a neck brace on for three months, then rehab before slowly finding his way back on his skis.

"Going through those times can really show what kind of a person you are," he said. "If you take your rehab really seriously, you can come back stronger than before.

"Sometimes it takes a step back to reassess where you're at, and reset the fire within yourself. I believe there are positives in anything in life, regardless of the situation and what cards you're dealt. You can come out of it and play a strong hand."

Perhaps the biggest issue the 26-year-old had to cope with was whether it was time to quit while he was ahead, figure he'd had a good run and jack it all in for a more sedate life.

"I went through a week not knowing the extent of how bad it was, not knowing if I'd be able to ski again.

"I reflected that this is really a dangerous sport. Do I want to keep doing this? And I came to the conclusion that I would rather risk the same thing happening again and be out there doing exactly what I love [rather than], walk away and spend my whole life in regret at not pursuing what I really wanted to do."

That decision taken, and with full health regained, Wells' performances have been on an upward trajectory since.

In March last year, Wells won the European slopestyle title at Laax in Switzerland; then there was a second placing on the Winter Dew tour event in Breckenridge, Colorado, last December - "that was special" - followed by gold at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado in February, and a third at the Olympic test event later that month.

"Finally winning the X Games, and a few other really good results, was a reflection of that time I had laid up. When I was able to stand on top of the podium and achieved a childhood goal was really special. Coming from that place to somewhere even higher than I'd been before the injury was a cool feeling of accomplishment."

Wells is adamant he is a superior athlete now than pre-Sochi.

"My tricks are better, I've had four more years training, and with the
experience under my belt I'm a lot more prepared."

He will start his programme building towards the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea next month at the (non-Olympic qualifying) Winter Dew event back in Breckenridge, return home for Christmas then it's full on, starting with the opening World Cup event - and Olympic qualifier - at Font Romeu in France on January 13-14.

There's the X Games in late January then a run of World Cups in the US, Canada and Switzerland before the world championships at Sierra Nevada, Spain in mid-March.

It's all about accruing qualifying points to secure places for New Zealand. The hope is some will be locked in before the end of next year, to avoid a late scramble.

The final assessment is the ability to make the top 16 to satisfy the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

Wells is convinced the standard of New Zealand winter athletes is rising.

"We're going to have the strongest team we've ever taken to a Games. I don't think our talent pool has ever been so deep."

While that is a good thing for the sport and the country, it also brings what Wells calls "a little more cut throat" edge to the rivalry with skiers and snowboarders vying with each other for limited New Zealand spots.

Wells gave up the halfpipe a few seasons ago. It was too tough on the body, plus he'd always had a preference for the slopestyle, when athletes work their way down a mountain through, and over, various obstacles.

Jossi and Jackson favour the slopestyle; Beau-James and Byron do the halfpipe. Call it spreading the family talent.

It's odd to think of a 26-year-old as the person others aspire to emulate. That should come later.

But this is a sport where the attrition rate can be high. Four New Zealand women who competed in Sochi are all gone from the sport with injuries a key factor.

So what's the buzz? Why does Wells keep pushing the envelope even as the injury toll mounts, striving to be higher, faster, better?

"I'm a big believer in growing as a person every day and becoming better and better at whatever you're going to do.

"I get such an enjoyment when I'm out on the hill doing something I love, and can see myself getting better at it.

"It's the freedom of the sport, a way of expressing myself.

"I can go out and have an absolute blast. It's kind of my art form."

- NZ Herald

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