By Peggy Shinn | Jan. 28, 2015, 11:52 a.m. (ET)
Ashley Caldwell competes in the women's aerials final of the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championship on Jan. 15, 2015 in Kreischberg, Austria.


Ashley Caldwell doesn’t back down. Even when backing off might give her a better chance of landing on the podium — rather than one step off.

The 21-year-old freestyle aerials skier threw two of the hardest tricks at the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski World Championships in mid-January. But a tough landing in the super final put her in fourth.

Caldwell has only jumped the triples — a full full full (three flips, each with a twist) and a lay double full full (triple flip with no twists on the first flip, two on the second, one on the third) — a handful of times in competition. She simply needs to do the tricks a few more times to become consistent with landing — to reach the point where the tricks start slowing down in her mind when she is in the air, said head aerials coach Todd Ossian.

“I really think when everything does start moving just a little slower for her and it does start to happen, it’s going to take the world by storm,” added Ossian.

These triple jumps carried her to victory at the Visa Freestyle International at Deer Valley Resort, a FIS World Cup in Park City, Utah, earlier this month. It was Caldwell’s first world cup victory in four years. She has another chance this weekend at the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup in Lake Placid, New York.

“There have been people who have asked me if the strategy would be to just compete doubles,” Caldwell said recently by Skype from her home in Park City. “If you land, it’s easily competitive with everyone else. But that’s not my mentality. I want to win every competition. But I don’t want to do it at the expense of not pushing my limits as an athlete and the sport’s as well.”

This is Caldwell’s mantra for life as well. And the two-time Olympian hopes that it will lead to an Olympic gold medal in 2018. Had it not been for consecutive knee injuries, the bold young freestyle skier might have already earned an Olympic medal.


Ashley Caldwell reacts after a jump in the women's aerials final during the FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup on Jan. 8, 2015 in Park City, Utah. 

A former gymnast, Caldwell tried aerials after watching the sport on TV during the 2006 Olympic Winter Games and declaring it “totally awesome.” After a summer training in the pool at the Waterville Valley Ski Academy in 2007, she was invited to join the U.S. Ski Team’s Elite Aerials Program in Lake Placid. At age 16, she made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, finishing 10th at the Vancouver Games. At the end of that season, she was named FIS Freestyle World Cup Rookie of the Year.

During the 2010-11 season, she went ever higher in the sport, finishing on the podium in two world cups, including a win in Lake Placid.

Then in December 2011, she tore the ACL in her right knee. Caldwell was upset but also realistic about the injury.

“It’s pretty rare that people come out of this sport injury free,” she said. “So my mentality was this is going to happen, it sucks that it’s happening to me, but people come back stronger.”

A year later — almost to the day — she tore the ACL in her other knee. This time, she was devastated — mad at the world and mad at her sport. But again, she was realistic.

“I was like, well, I just did this, I’m going to be better at it now,” she said of her second recovery. “I took that mentality and did the exact same thing that I did before. Again, I’m stronger than I was even after the first injury.”

In her first world cup in two years in December 2013, Caldwell finished second. She also made her second Olympic team.

At the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, she practiced a full full full for the first time on snow, joining just a handful of women who have competed triple flips with triple twists. She qualified for the Sochi final with the highest score. Then in the first final (of three), she botched her landing and did not advance, finishing 10th again.

So why throw risky triple flips when skiers like Kiley McKinnon, Caldwell’s teammate, are landing on the podium doing doubles?

In part, Caldwell is inspired by the late Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, an American aerials skier famous for his Hurricane — three flips and five twists. Peterson won an Olympic silver medal in Vancouver. On July 25, 2011, he committed suicide.

“He’s a legend in our sport, and we think about him all the time,” Caldwell explained. “His aura or energy that he brought to the hill (was like), ‘Yep, I’m confident, I’m doing this, I don’t care.’ (He wanted to do) something that was cooler than anything else anyone is doing.”

“I’m a girl,” she added, “so it’s not quite as intense. But at the same time, that is definitely what I’m trying to do. I go up there and huck tricks harder than anyone else, and I do it in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen any other girl do.”

Ossian says Caldwell skis faster into the jumps than any other woman. In fact, she goes as fast as the guys, which sends her higher in the air and gives her time to do triple flips and twists.

“She’s going way bigger than what other girls have been doing in the past,” Ossian said. “She treats herself, and likes the coaches to treat her, as a guy. And she deserves that.”

Caldwell brings the same intensity to other parts of her life. While training with the Elite Aerials Program, she finished high school online by age 16. Then just before making the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, she earned her college degree in Finance from SUNY Empire State College — again, online.

She would now like to enroll in a MBA program. Meanwhile, she has an internship with the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Her responsibilities include analyzing data on Utah’s exports, and she is tasked with making a recommendation to the governor’s office for trade missions to several countries to increase Utah’s exports.

“I kind of geek out with (spreadsheets on) Excel and work on the data on the plane,” she said. “My teammates laugh at me a lot.”

Caldwell has yet to pick a career goal, but she loves math and science, economics and finance, and she enjoys helping her father with his real estate development business.

Until then, she has more tricks up her sleeve in aerials. Once she has mastered her current triples and improved her landing consistency, she would like to try a triple with four twists: a full double full full. At the Sochi Games, bronze medalist Lydia Lassila from Australia became the first woman ever to do this jump on snow.

“My goal is to not only compete that trick, but compete it consistently and score well and score in the range that the guys do,” she said.

“I believe that for my own sake and how I want leave this sport as an athlete,” she added, “I want to push these bounds and take the chances and hang out with the boys up there.”

As Ossian said, “She is taking this sport into another dimension. … If she lands, it’s over for everyone else.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.