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At 16, Olympian Ashley Caldwell's exuberance is captivating

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010; D01

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.

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."

The oldest of four siblings, Caldwell skied at White Tail and Snowshoe in her younger -- well, even younger -- days. She attended Hillside Elementary in Ashburn and Blue Ridge Middle School and Harmony Intermediate in Purcellville. She finished high school online and has begun taking college classes the same way. But like a typical 16-year-old, she's excited about having received her driver's license last November and is quick to brag that St. Onge has taught her to drive a stick.

"People are letting me borrow their cars, which is surprising," she said. "I must be more mature than I thought."

She's definitely more mature than she thinks, but thankfully still a teenager at times as well. Olympians she'd most like to meet include snowboarder Shaun White and short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno. And she was very impressed that once she made the team, she was given, "like, 18 jerseys."

"I didn't know what to expect," she said. "I don't know anything about processing, which was the funnest thing. People just gave you a bunch of clothes, which was so exciting. The village is so cool. I'm just giddy with all the excitement. [Long pause.] I forgot the question, I got so excited."

Caldwell also admits that when she got the news that she had made the Olympic team, she didn't have much of a reaction. It took a while for the reality to sink in.

"When I first put on my Olympic suit, the star-spangled one that we jump in, it finally hit me," she said. "I started jumping around. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I'm going to the Olympics.' "

In preliminaries, which will be held on Cypress Mountain a week from today, Caldwell will perform her most difficult trick, a full-double-full, which is "two flips. I do one twist on the first [flip] and two twists on the second, which does rank high in the range of degree of difficulty."

The top 16 qualifiers will advance to the finals Feb. 24. With three top-15 finishes in World Cup competition, it's conceivable that Caldwell could prolong her Olympic experience by a few days. Either way, she'll continue to enjoy everything about her Vancouver experience; her teammates gave her some good advice.

"To savor being young," she said. "I feel like that's great advice. I was like, 'I'm 16; that's so old.' And they're like, 'Yeah, I'm 27; I'm really old.' Just savoring all these experiences and realizing that I've got a bunch of time and I can do what I want when I want it. Just pursue everything you've ever wanted."

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