By definition, an Olympic moment is just a sliver of time, something to be cherished or maybe rued. Ashley Caldwell was temporarily lost in her moment. She couldn’t look too far into the future because her disappointment was still too fresh.
The young aerialist stepped out of her bindings, answered all the questions and said all the right things and then as others kept flipping for medals, she quietly collapsed into her father’s arms.
Appearing in her second Olympics, Caldwell landed the biggest jump of her life Friday and posted the highest score of the women’s aerials competition. But it came in the qualifying round, not when she needed it most. In the finals, Caldwell failed to land her triple somersault and finished in 10th place, delaying her dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal by at least four years.
“I’ve got some more Olympics in me,” said the 20-year old Virginia native. “Definitely some more tricks. I have a lot of room to grow, that’s for sure.”
Her American teammate, Emily Cook, finished in eighth place. At 34 years of age and competing in her third Winter Games, Cook said this would be her last Olympics. She has been skiing competitively for 20 years and has seen aerials change over that time. She watches younger competitors such as Caldwell and is confident Friday's disappointment will someday be overshadowed by something else.
“She has so much in front of her. I have no concern about Ashley being incredibly successful,” Cook said.
Cook said aerialists improve with age, which bodes well for Caldwell. Three of the top-four finishers Friday night are 31 and older. Gold medalist Alla Tsuper from Belarus is 34.
Years younger, Caldwell is already in an elite class. The trick she nailed in qualifying has only been landed by one other female aerialist in the world. Caldwell had never landed it on snow until a practice session three days before Friday's competition. The trick is called a full-full-full on the hill, and it’s essentially a triple somersault with a full twist on each flip — a dizzying whirlwind on skis.
Caldwell’s mother, Leslie, was against the railing at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park Friday, providing her the best view of something she can barely watch.
“Oh, my God. I kind of get a little nauseous,” Leslie explained. “Very nauseous. Sometimes I don’t even look. Tell me if she lands, and then I’ll watch. It’s fun watching when I know she’s landed. But it’s hard. It’s difficult as a mom to watch.”
Caldwell nailed it, earning a score of 101.25. But the Olympic finals format consists of three jumps with the field shrinking after each jump. One bad landing can doom an Olympic dream. “There’s no second chances in the finals round,” said Caldwell, an Ashburn native who now lives and trains in Park City, Utah.
In the finals, she attempted a trick called a back lay-tuck-full, which is a triple back somersault in which the first flip is laid out, the second tucked and the third with a full twist. But she dragged her hands on the landing and her bottom hit the snow. Her score of 72.80 wasn't good enough to advance.
The Sochi Games marked Caldwell’s second Olympics. She missed a full two years of training since the Vancouver Games after tearing the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees. Before she sets foot again on an Olympic stage, she hopes to benefit from four full years of preparations.
“I’m looking forward to be able to hopefully stay healthy and train the way I want to train,” Caldwell said.
That would give her four years to keep pushing boundaries. Already, she’s one of only a handful of female aerialists who can land triple somersaults — and one of only two who can land the full-full-full. Despite her place in the standings, landing such a daunting trick in the Winter Games offers something to build upon.
“Just to be at the Olympics is an awesome experience,” she added. “I’m bummed, but it’s been a really fun experience.”