Ashley Caldwell and Jon Lillis wrote their names into contention for medals at next year’s PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games in dramatic fashion Friday by giving Team USA its first sweep of aerials skiing golds since 1995 at the 2017 FIS Freestyle and Snowboard World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
After fourth-place finishes at the last two worlds, Ashley Caldwell broke through by winning the first U.S. women’s world title since Nikki Stone 22 years ago, while Lillis earned his first victory and only the second major international podium of his career, taking the first U.S. men’s world title since Ryan St. Onge in 2009.
It marks the second time Team USA achieved an aerials golden sweep, first accomplished in 1995 by Stone and Trace Worthington.
A two-time Olympian from Ashburn, Virginia, Caldwell survived a bumpy first round to take gold with a score of with a 109.29. She is the first woman in the world to land her final trick, a full-double-full-full (three flips with four twists). After sticking her landing, Caldwell circled the finish area looking to the sky with a huge smile on her face, as though she couldn’t believe what she’d just accomplished.
"This is huge," Caldwell said. "I’ve put a lot of hard work into trying to be good at triples. That means taking hits and risking more and forfeiting some good competition results because I’m not as consistent because I’m doing higher degree of difficulty. I’ve put in the hours and the hard work, and sometimes it doesn’t pay off. Most of this year, it didn't pay off. To come out here and reaffirm that what I’m doing can work and did work and is the right path, that’s huge for me and my mental state going into this Olympic year."
Danielle Scott of Australia claimed the silver with a 94.47, while China’s Xu Mengtao, the 2015 world champion, took bronze with a 91.65.
After qualifying in first Thursday, a rough landing in Final 1 saw Caldwell advancing by the skin of her teeth, placing ninth with a 73.34 score. Kiley McKinnon, the reigning world silver medalist came through third, while Madison Olsen was eighth at 73.95.
The second final saw Caldwell find her form, earning a 103.27, nearly 20 points ahead of Australia’s Danielle Scott. Olsen’s 75.60 was fourth, while McKinnon posted a 74.24 to give Team USA half of the starting spots in the final six. McKinnon finished fourth with a 90.94, 0.71 away from the bronze, while Olsen was fifth at 70.98.
"That was incredible to have Maddie, Kiley and I all in the top six," Caldwell said. "That’s probably our best showing in a while and I’m super proud of it. We had an incredible world champs team and i know that we weren’t the best team overall this year and we have been the past few years, but we came to this worlds and I think our team crushed."
Caldwell came to Spain with only 11 world cup podiums since her debut seven years ago, her most recent coming Jan. 14 in Lake Placid, New York, her sixth career victory.
Even more stunning was Lillis, who had placed seventh in his world championships debut two years ago and has only one world cup podium to his credit, a second-place finish last February in Moscow. Sixth in qualifications, like Caldwell he squeezed into the second round of Friday’s finals by placing ninth, edging out teammate Mac Bohonnon, who had won qualifying. Lillis then posted the highest score of the second final, a 123.01.
The last competitor down the hill, he received the highest score of the night, a 125.79, easily surpassing China’s two-time defending champion, Qi Guangpu, who earned his fourth straight world medal with a 120.36, good for silver. Australia’s David Morris took bronze at 114.93.
"Having a world championship gold really feels good going into the Olympics for sure," Lillis said. "It’s a big confidence booster. It lets people know you’re here to win. It’s the exact same format, same competitors as the Olympics. It just shows that I can win gold at the Olympics and that’s the ultimate goal, obviously."
A native of Rochester, New York, Lillis finished 2017 ranked eighth in the world cup standings with four top-10 finishes, logging a pair of fourth-place finishes at the season opener Dec. 17 in Beida Lake, China, and the closer March 3 in Moscow.
Caldwell and Lillis grew up in the sport together, both having started it roughly 10 years ago at age 13.
"Jon is incredible," Caldwell said. "I grew up with Jon. We were 13 years old growing up in aerials. To have it work out like this is unreal and still settling in."