Ashley Caldwell

AP

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

U.S. sweeps world titles in aerials

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American Ashley Caldwell and Jonathon Lillis swept the aerials titles at the world freestyle skiing championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain on Friday.

It marked the second-ever U.S. aerials sweep at a worlds after Nikki Stone and Trace Worthington accomplished the feat in 1995.

Caldwell, a two-time Olympian, added her first world title to a resume that already included six World Cup wins and the 2016 World Cup season title. She finished fourth at her previous two worlds appearances.

In the super final, Caldwell became the first woman to land a quadruple twisting triple flip known as “The Daddy,” carrying nine tenths more in difficulty than any other competitor. She scored 109.29 points to top Australian Danielle Scott (94.47) and China’s Xu Mengtao (91.65). Xu and Scott have been the top two aerialists this season.

“Today was only the third time I’ve ever even tried [the jump],” Caldwell said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “Before dropping in I was just thinking to myself, ‘This is my third one, at least if I crash I was doing something big and ballsy.'”

Lillis, aiming for his first Olympics in PyeongChang, is a surprise world champion. He owns one World Cup podium result, a runner-up in February 2016, and finished seventh and 24th in his two previous worlds appearances.

Lillis scored 125.79 in the men’s super final Friday, edging China’s Qi Guangpu (120.36) and Australian David Morris (114.93). Like Caldwell, Lillis performed a quadruple twisting triple flip, but ordering his twists and flips differently.

Qi won the previous two world titles. Morris is the 2014 Olympic silver medalist.

The U.S.’ only Olympic aerials titles came in 1998, when Stone and Eric Bergoust swept golds in Nagano. The sport has been on the Olympic program since 1994.

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MORE: U.S. cross-country skiers mark most successful world champs

Ashley Caldwell wins World Cup aerials season title

Ashley Caldwell
USSA/Greg Heuer
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MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Two-time U.S. Olympian Ashley Caldwell clinched her first overall title in the aerials skiing World Cup on Saturday at the final stop in Belarus.

Caldwell won with a score of 103.27 points, ensuring she finishes top of the overall standings for the season ahead of Australia’s Danielle Scott, who was second Saturday with 96.93.

Alexandra Ramanovskaya of Belarus was third on 80.33.

Alina Gridneva of Russia had a long-shot chance of winning the title but could only finish seventh Saturday.

The Minsk competition was not originally scheduled as the final round, but next week’s event in Spain was canceled due to warm temperatures.

Last season, Kiley McKinnon became the first U.S. woman since Nikki Stone in 1998 to take the World Cup aerials season title.

Caldwell finished 10th at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

MORE: U.S. aerialists, elementary school classmates, sweep 2015 World Cup titles