SOCHI 2014

By Brad Botkin | Jan. 23, 2014, 1:54 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Freestyle skiers Ashley Caldwell and Emily Cook 

Freestyle aerialists Emily Cook and Ashley Caldwell have a lot in common. They both live and train in Park City, Utah. They often room together on the road. They’re former gymnasts. And they’ve both battled back from what easily could’ve been career-ending injuries.

"I remember one very challenging day in the gym this summer,” Cook recalls. “The two of us were pushing through some pretty big obstacles, trying to get strong after some injuries, and I looked over at her and said, ‘This will be so worth it this winter.'"

Well, winter is here. And it was, indeed, worth it. 

Ashley Caldwell practices at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships at Deer Valley Resort on Feb. 3, 2011 in Park City, Utah.

As was announced on Tuesday, Cook and Caldwell are heading to Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games as the only two women’s aerialists selected to the freestyle ski team. Composed of six moguls skiers, including reigning Olympic champion Hannah Kearney, and three aerialists (Mac Bohonnon joins Cook and Caldwell from the men’s side), the freestyle team is stacked from top to bottom and could be poised for a big showing in Sochi.

“We’re fantastically excited,” U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Freestyle Program Director Todd Schirman said. “Everyone on this team has podium potential.”

For all their similarities, Cook and Caldwell head into Sochi at very different points in their careers. Cook, 34, is nearing the end of a stellar career that has seen her win three world cup events and six U.S. aerial titles, but never an Olympic medal. Caldwell, on the other hand, is hopefully just getting started. At just 20 years old, she could easily have two or even three Olympic cycles left. But Caldwell isn’t thinking that far ahead. Right now, it’s only about Sochi. Nothing else. She understands as well as anyone the urgency of an Olympic opportunity and the importance of staying in that moment, because you never know if you’re going to get another one.

“I’ve learned how quickly things can change,” Caldwell said. 

Caldwell burst onto the aerials stage in 2010 at just 16 years old, posting top-15 finishes in her first three world cup events before surprising everyone, perhaps even herself, by making the finals at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, where she wound up finishing 10th  as the youngest member of the U.S. team. It really was an incredible feat. After spending 11 years as a competitive gymnast, she’d only been doing aerials for some three years, and just like that she was an Olympic finalist. Add to that a silver medal at both the 2010 and 2011 U.S. championships, and it would be hard to imagine a more auspicious beginning to a career.

Emily Cook competes during qualifying at the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup at Deer Valley
on Jan. 10, 2014 in Park City, Utah. 

But then came the injuries. The first one happened in December of 2011, when she tore her right ACL at an event in Park City, Utah. Then, a year later, almost to the exact day, she went down again at the very same venue. She knew the second she hit the snow. This time, it was her left ACL.

"I remember just laying there screaming, ‘No!’ for probably 10 solid minutes,” Caldwell recalls. “I couldn’t believe this was happening again."

Unfortunately, Cook knows all too well what Caldwell was feeling not only in that moment, but in the subsequent years of competition that were lost to grueling rehab. Caldwell missed two full seasons, while Cook, after breaking both her ankles just two weeks before the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, basically had to learn to walk again.

The three-year recovery left Cook barely a year to prepare for the 2006 Torino Games, where she finished a disappointing 19th. She then turned her attention to the 2010 Games, but again, at the most inopportune of times, she missed six weeks with a badly bruised heel leading into Vancouver. She didn’t take a single jump until about two days before the competition and wound up finishing 11th, one spot behind Caldwell.

"I think the injuries over the years have helped me build strength both mentally and physically,” Cook said. “Being able to perform when things aren’t perfect makes jumping when everything is going well that much more fun. I’m ready for absolutely anything this time around."

And it’s not just their health that has these two excited. They’re jumping well of late, peaking at the right time, and for that, both of these wonderfully optimistic women have every right to believe something special could be in store in Sochi. Cook, after all, is coming off a 2012-13 season in which she finished in the top five three times and won the season finale in Ukraine, and she’s been no stranger to finals this year. Meanwhile, Caldwell, in her very first event back after the two-year layoff, took silver at this year’s season opener in Beidahu, China.

"Again, these two can get on that (Olympic) podium,” Schirman said. “Emily has an incredible arsenal of doubles, and Ashley is doing triples. Ashley is just a phenom athlete, and we know she has the jumps to compete with the Chinese (who have some of the strongest aerialists in the world and swept the world cup podium a few weeks back at Deer Valley). And when Emily’s nailing her jumps, they’re the best jumps on the hill."

Lacy Schnoor (L) talks with Emily Cook (C) and Ashley Caldwell during the aerials final at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games at Cypress Mountain Resort on Feb. 24, 2010. 

In listening to Schirman talk about Cook, in particular, it’s clear just how much she means to this team — not just for her talent, but also for her experience. Schirman calls her the “mother hen” of the group, saying she’ll help the whole team perform at a higher level by mentoring and helping to guide the younger athletes, and indeed Caldwell talks pointedly about how much Cook has meant in her development from something of a surprise Olympian in 2010 to true world-class aerialist. Of course, in raising her game to the highest level, Caldwell has also raised the expectations, and with that comes a very different kind of pressure.

"In 2010, I wasn’t even expected to go to the Olympics, so just making it there was an accomplishment,” Caldwell said. “This year, there is a little more pressure to perform. Handling that will be the challenge."

So here they are, Cook and Caldwell, perhaps for the last time together. Cook says that just going to Sochi is a dream come true, and certainly she has her eye on her first Olympic medal, as does Caldwell. But it’s clear that a part of them will be rooting for each other, too. They’ve been through too much together not to be.

"The journey is impossible on our own, and I am definitely a better athlete for having trained with Ashley,” Cook said. “We balance each other out in the best possible way. She makes me laugh and keeps me grounded, and Sochi will just be one more incredible experience.

"Ashley and I have never shared a podium,” she adds. “I can hardly imagine how amazing that would be."

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