Long before she was an Olympic freestyle skier, flipping through the air on the biggest stage possible, Ashley Caldwell was somewhat of an area football prodigy. The Loudoun County native won her local Punt, Pass & Kick title three times, each year advancing to the regional finals at FedEx Field during a Washington Redskins game. Though she never reached the national event, she at one time boasted the highest marks in the country — besting both girls and boys — in her age group.
Several years later, Caldwell has traded pigskin for skis, acquired surgical scars on both knees and blossomed into one of the top aerial acrobats in the world. But not everything has changed.
“That’s my goal,” she said, “to close that gap between female and male aerials.”
Despite missing two full years of training since making her Olympic debut in 2010 because of injuries, Caldwell, 20, hopes to put on a show at the Sochi Games. She’s one of few female aerialists in the world who can land a triple somersault and knows winning gold next month might require a difficult trick that calls for four twists and three flips, a jump that until recently was reserved solely for male competitors. Caldwell is one of only three women in the world who can pull off the trick — the only American woman — though she has yet to land one in competition this year.
Being in position to push the sport’s limits is quite a stretch from where Caldwell was just four years ago. She didn’t even expect to make the U.S. team in Vancouver, and at 16, she was the youngest American there.
“Just the fact that she went felt like a gold medal,” said her father, Mark Caldwell.
She surprised many by making the final round of the women’s aerials, ultimately finishing in 10th place. This time around, her sights are set higher.
“I think there will be more pressure,” Caldwell said. “But I’m going to try to keep that element where I was happy and excited and just enjoying the Games.”
After enjoying a momentary surge of momentum following the Vancouver Olympics, Caldwell, ranked No. 3 in the world at the time, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in December 2011. Nearly one year to the day later, just weeks after returning to the mountain, she again landed badly, tearing her left ACL this time.
“She called us, and we thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” her father recalled. “She said, ‘No, I’m serious. I think I tore my other ACL.’ ”
Caldwell had surgery last January and missed a second full season of competition. Her first big outing back on the mountain was last month in Beida Lake, China, her first World Cup event in more than two years. Caldwell finished second and sent notice she could be an medal contender in Sochi.
“Ashley’s done an amazing job coming back from two years of knee injuries, sitting up there in December, back on snow for the first time and landing her first triples [flips],” said Todd Schirman, the program director for U.S. freestyle. “She’s such an amazing athlete and such a phenom for our program.”
In Sochi, Caldwell will have to contend with a talented Chinese team. There have been five World Cup events this season; China has claimed at least two of the top three finishers at all of them. Five Chinese aerialists have reached the podium.
Caldwell’s resilient attitude during rehabilitation, plus the invaluable Olympic experience earned as a teenager, means that despite her young age, she enters the Sochi Games as a team leader.
“She has maturity beyond her years, and I’ve always respected that,” said Hannah Kearney, a mogul skier who won gold at the Vancouver Olympics. “She is one of the most supportive teammates I’ve ever had.”
Caldwell’s start in the sport traces back to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. She was 12 years old and had been a gymnast in Northern Virginia for most of her life. Her mother saw the Olympic aerials competition on television and planted the seed in her daughter’s head. The sport combined acrobatics with skiing, a favorite family pastime.
The Caldwells signed her up for a summer camp, and a couple of years later, at age 14, Caldwell moved permanently to Lake Placid, N.Y., where she could train full time.
“She’d been an old soul since he was young,” Mark said, “very mature.”
Since then, Caldwell’s life has been dedicated to the sport. Her family has relocated to Houston, and she now resides in Park City, Utah. She finished high school online and last year completed her bachelor’s degree in finance — even though she hasn’t sat in an actual classroom in years.
“I was bummed I was missing the homecoming dance and being able to hang out with people,” she said. “But I knew I was doing something that I loved and I was excited about.”
Sports are in her genes. Her father was a reserve quarterback at Clemson more than three decades ago. She grew up a Redskins fan, throwing a football in the backyard and eventually blowing away the neighborhood kids at Punt, Pass & Kick competitions. Even now, she boasts that her throwing arm is nothing to scoff at.
“I can throw a spiral pretty much better than everyone on my team,” she said with a laugh, “boys and girls combined.”
Caldwell hoped to combine her two passions this year. She requested permission from her favorite team to sport the team’s logo this season, and her ski sponsor, Volkl, made her custom-painted Washington Redskins skis. (To her disappointment, rules prohibit Caldwell from using the skis in actual World Cup or Olympic competition.)
While football has provided plenty of distraction — not to mention fodder for her Twitter account — her competitive life takes place mostly up in the air, where she twists and flips more than five stories off the ground. Her sport has changed and grown in recent years. Even as judges tend to reward technical precision, many aerialists try to push the sport forward with more challenging jumps.
She hopes next month’s trip to Sochi won’t mark her last Winter Games. Just reaching the Olympics isn’t enough this time, and after overcoming two potentially career-threatening injuries, she’s not sure what could stop her moving forward.
As her father says, “I don’t think anyone puts more pressure on her than she puts on herself to do well.”