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

Ashley Caldwell
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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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