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Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

At 16, Olympian Ashley Caldwell's exuberance is captivating

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By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C.

It's hard to imagine that anyone enjoyed Friday night's Opening Ceremony as much as Ashley Caldwell. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying much of anything as much as Caldwell, the youngest American on the U.S. team and a one-woman -- one-girl? -- ball of fire in her own right.

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Precocious doesn't begin to describe Caldwell, a 16-year-old freestyle aerialist who lived in Loudoun County -- the beautifully named Hamilton, to be precise -- until her family moved to Charleston, S.C., two years ago, around the time the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association selected her for its Elite Air Program in Lake Placid, N.Y. Here's how Caldwell describes learning her journey to the Olympics:

"You just keep doing small jumps, you work up, you add twists and you add flips and eventually you're doing a full-double-full on snow and going to the Olympic Games."

And because she made it sound so simple, she laughs. Caldwell laughs a lot. At a news conference for the aerial team, Caldwell -- with all of three World Cup competitions under her belt -- marched in, sat at Jeret Peterson's seat, and waited with a mischievous grin for someone -- preferably Peterson -- to notice and force her to move. Classic little sister move.

She has earned the right to give her teammates grief because in those three World Cup appearances, she had three top-15 finishes. That's nothing to laugh at, but pretty much everything else Caldwell says and does is entertaining. During a question-and-answer session with the media, she professed her nervousness and then charmed the room, starting with, "None of this would have been possible without [veteran teammates] Emily Cook and Ryan St. Onge." [Long pause, and then a deadpan delivery.] "I wasn't told to say that."

She wasn't done, either. Asked about her relationship with her teammates, she said: "They give you tons of advice. They're helping us. I'm helping them retain their youth."

Caldwell provides more than just a refreshing personality and a chance for her older teammates to practice their mentoring skills. She was recently named the freestyle World Cup rookie of the year based on her fast rise and surprising results. She was just 13 when she began freestyle skiing after 10 years in gymnastics. At 14, she entered the development program, moved to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid and began training with Coach Dmitry Kavunov.

Her parents, Mark and Leslie, had few qualms about letting her go.

"It was a little roll of the dice," said Mark Caldwell, who is a real estate developer. "She's always been an old soul and mature for her age. By the time she was 14, we would pull up to the airport and drop her at Dulles. She's always been a self-starter."

The elite program is intended to put high-caliber prospects in the freestyle pipeline. China, which has made great strides in freestyle in a short period, has a similar system. Caldwell said the U.S. program has had trouble recruiting, but hopes her quick success will change that.

"We want high-level gymnasts who are young but injury-free," she said. "It's hard to find girls like that. We're working at it."


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