KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Earlier this week, Ashley Caldwell hit the ramp and went flying through the air, flouting the laws of physics as she spun and twisted through the mountain air. There’s plenty of adrenaline, for sure, but that’s not necessarily the best part.
“We have all this excitement and anxiety and a little bit of fear at the top. When you land, that’s when it all gets realized,” said Caldwell, a 20-year old aerialist, originally from Loudoun County who’s competing in her second Winter Games.
Particularly this time. Caldwell landed a jump during a practice session Tuesday that she had never even attempted before, one she hopes will send her to the medal podium, completing an Olympic dream that was born in Northern Virginia, took her to Lake Placid, N.Y., to learn the sport, and to Park City, Utah, to perfect it.
Caldwell competes in the women’s aerials competition Friday at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. It marks her second Winter Games. In Vancouver, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team and was just happy to be there. This time, her sights are set higher.
It’s simple — at least on paper: one flip with a twist, then another and then another.
“And then you try to land on your feet,” she said.
On her first attempt Tuesday, Caldwell dragged her left hand slightly on the landing. She raced back up and did it again, nailing the second attempt.
“I was so excited,” she said.
She’s one of just five Olympic competitors who can land any sort of triple somersault. Of those, only one other can also mix in at least three twists.
While Caldwell is the lone American woman to ever land the trick — known on the hill as a “full-full-full” — the defending Olympic gold medalist, Australia’s Lydia Lassila, managed to do one better in a practice session this week, adding another twist to the second somersault.
For Caldwell, though, the trick is hardly mountain-tested, she says she has no qualms breaking it out Friday. To win a medal, she may not have a choice.
“If you’re not confident, it’s definitely not going to work out for you,” said Caldwell, an Ashburn native. “Sometimes you really have to believe in yourself and believe in all the hard work and dedication you put in to all your tricks.”
Evolving sports of the Winter Olympics
Aerials is a sport of progression. Competitors grow into new tricks, adding a twist here and a flip there. Even on competition days, they’ll start with simpler tricks and pull out the tougher ones in later rounds. After years of twirling through the air, they learn to eschew the fears that might accompany dangerous mid-air gymnastics.
“Aerials is a difficult sport. We don’t often land every single jump every day,” she said. “We crash a lot.”
Caldwell speaks from experience. In December 2011, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee and then one year later tore the ACL in her left knee. She missed two full seasons of competition.
Ranked No. 3 in the world before her first knee injury, Caldwell appears to have rebounded fully. She worked on the full-full-full over the summer, launching herself into a swimming pool at the U.S. training facility in Park City, Utah, where she now lives. She executed it enough to become qualified in the trick, which enabled her to attempt it on snow and break it out in competition this season. But conditions were never perfect, and Caldwell and her coaches didn’t feel comfortable even attempting the trick until this week.
Todd Ossian, the U.S. aerials coach, saw the potential years ago. With Caldwell’s gymnastics background — she competed for 11 years out of a Leesburg gym — Ossian could see a true acrobat on the trampoline who was eager to try new things.
“She’s always asking, ‘Can I do this? Can I try that?’ ” Ossian said.
Keys to the skis
Over time, he says Caldwell has been able to translate that ambition and the tramp-tested tricks onto the snow.
The test is to land it to the judges’ satisfaction. Triple somersaults offer no guarantees. Fellow American Emily Cook posts high scores, but her top trick here will be a triple-twisting double-backflip. She notes that throughout the World Cup season, about half the competitors reached the podium relying on complex double flips, not triples.
“You have to perform your trick well. That’s basically what it comes down to,” said Cook, who’s competing in her third Olympics.
Attempting a triple, though, would give Caldwell some wiggle room. The degree of difficulty could compensate for any slight mistakes in the execution of the trick or the landing.
“Our sport is very finicky,” Caldwell said. “You have to land your jumps and you have to do them well if you want to get on the podium. . . . You have to land them, you have to do them nice.”