Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup

Laurie Hernandez plans on competing in 2019, agent says

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Olympic gymnastics champion Laurie Hernandez plans on competing in 2019, her agent said.

Hernandez has not competed since taking team gold and vault silver at the Rio Olympics, followed by winning “Dancing with the Stars” later that fall.

She said in October that she hoped to compete in 2018 but would not rush a comeback. Hernandez since decided not to compete at the U.S. Championships this August.

No member of the Final Five has competed at the elite level since Rio, though Madison Kocian is in her sophomore season at UCLA and Simone Biles plans to return this summer.

Aly Raisman said in September 2016 that she planned to take one year off, then return to training for a Tokyo 2020 run. But her focus shifted in the last year to something more important — taking on USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee after Larry Nassar sexual-abuse crimes.

The last member of the Final Five, 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas, has not said in widely reported comments if or when she will return to competition.

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Sonja Henie record at stake; figure skating worlds pairs preview

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When Aljona Savchenko won her first gold medal at her fifth Olympics with her third different partner in PyeongChang, she said she “wrote history.”

She can write some more this week.

Savchenko, who at 34 became the oldest female figure skating champion in Winter Olympic history, and partner Bruno Massot are the only pairs medalists from PyeongChang who are back for the world championships in Milan.

The Germans headline the field for the short program Wednesday and free skate Friday.

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Savchenko can tie Norwegian Sonja Henie for the female record of 11 world championships medals. She can grab a share of second on the all-time pairs list with a sixth world title, four shy of Soviet Irina Rodnina‘s record.

Savchenko, who won four crowns with now-retired Robin Szolkowy, goes for her first world title with Massot. They’re clear favorites.

Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong withdrew from worlds due to Sui’s foot injury. Olympic bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford retired.

It’s arguably a surprise that Savchenko and Massot chose to compete in Milan. They’re the first Olympic pairs champions to compete at a post-Olympic worlds since 1992.

Their top challengers are Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who outscored Savchenko and Massot in the Olympic short program but dropped off the podium in the free skate with a fall on their throw.

U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, 15th at the Olympics, made the top 10 in all of their four world championships appearances with a best finish of seventh. The last U.S. pairs medal came in 2002, the nation’s longest drought in any figure skating discipline.

The Knierims were the only U.S. pair in PyeongChang, but in Milan they’re joined by Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay.

Stellato earned singles silver at the 2000 World Junior Championships, then retired at age 17 due to hip injuries. She came back at age 32 in 2016 in pairs and, with the Sochi Olympian Bartholomay, took bronze at this year’s nationals.

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