Ashley Caldwell

Ashley Caldwell flies into Bird’s Nest after two years away

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The setting won’t be the only story when Beijing’s Bird’s Nest hosts an aerials skiing World Cup this weekend.

American Ashley Caldwell will set up some 200 feet above the ground of the stadium that hosted the epic 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony on Saturday. She will set up parallel to its polymer membrane, glide down a hill and launch off a ramp five stories into the air, flip twice and twist three times. She will land, cleanly, she believes.

It hasn’t always followed that flight plan.

Caldwell, 20, tore her right ACL landing on Dec. 22, 2011, in Park City, Utah. She tore her left ACL landing on Dec. 20, 2012, in Park City, Utah.

She competed for the first time in nearly two years last week in Beida Lake, China, and took second in the season-opening World Cup event.

“It was a long two years,” Caldwell said after visiting the Bird’s Nest on Friday. “I always dream big, but I kind of wasn’t really focused too much on actual results.”

She was more set on landing a new trick. Caldwell is performing “doubles,” flipping twice in the air with one or two twists on each flip, with an eye on doing triples at the Olympics. It will likely take a triple to make the podium in Sochi.

Triples were the plan as far back as February 2011, 10 months before she suffered the first of those two major physical and mental setbacks.

“The first time around, it was really rough,” said Caldwell, who rehabbed, blogged and watched copious amounts of “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” the last two years. “Both times were extremely rough, but I’ve seen numerous athletes come back from ACL injuries stronger. I just made sure I focused on little gradual steps in the process, little accomplishments.

“The second time around it was rough because I worked really hard. I was ready. I was strong and confident. Then I get injured again. I’m like, this is so unfair. I just did this.”

Caldwell said she never considered giving up her sport. She also stayed dedicated academically.

“When I got injured, the first thing I did was schedule surgery,” she said. “The second thing I did was I signed up for more classes.”

She moved from Lake Placid, N.Y., to Park City, Utah, nannied and completed her undergraduate degree in finance from Empire State College online. The fall term ended Friday.

Her return silver medal last week was extraordinary given not only Caldwell’s injury history but also the balance of power in the sport. The U.S. has not won an Olympic or World Championships medal in women’s aerials since 1999, its longest drought in any freestyle skiing event.

China has come to dominate aerials, a sport suited to athletes with gymnastics backgrounds. Caldwell, a former gymnast herself, was the only non-Chinese in the top five last week.

“The Chinese are phenomenal athletes, but there are a lot of athletes on any given day that can land a jump that can beat the Chinese,” said Caldwell, who is surely one of them. “Our sport is very humbling because it’s so difficult. It takes a really good landed jump to win. We fall a lot. It’s something we do. In our sport, anybody can fall at any time.”

Caldwell is halfway to qualifying for Sochi, which she hoped would be her first Olympics when she took up the sport seven years ago after 10 years of tumbling. Caldwell saw aerials for the first time watching the 2006 Olympics on TV at age 12.

She started skiing at 13, moved out of her parents’ Virginia house to Lake Placid at 14 and surprised by earning a place on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team at 16, the youngest athlete among a delegation of more than 210.

In Vancouver, Caldwell impressed by making the 12-woman final out of 23 qualifying competitors and finishing 10th overall. She could secure her trip to Sochi on Saturday at the Bird’s Nest, a venue she gushed over after training Friday.

“It is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said Caldwell, one of 10 U.S. aerialists to compete this weekend. “Well, I guess the Olympics are the coolest event. This is the coolest venue. The scaffolding site takes up the entire length of the field. When we’re at the top, we’re at the top of the stadium. It’s unbelievable. It’s so cool.

“We’re in downtown Beijing in like a sweet hotel within walking distance to the Bird’s Nest. There’s a huge concert stage [inside]. We’re going to look like rock stars.”

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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