PARK CITY, Utah — Ashley Caldwell’s motto has long been go big or go home. And the 25-year-old aerials skier did not back down at the 2019 FIS Snowboard, Freestyle Ski and Freeski World Championships.
Six months and two weeks after having surgery on her shoulder, Caldwell qualified for the six-woman aerials final at worlds. Then she threw the hardest jump of any woman in the field — a full full full (three flips, three twists) with a 4.293 level of difficulty. Her takeoff was rough, and she was unable to defend her 2017 world championship title.
Instead, she landed in fifth place, but seemed thrilled.
“Tonight is the first night I’ve done triples on this site in a year, so that was a big hurdle for me to get over,” Caldwell said. “It was challenging, and I’m proud of my performance even though I didn’t come home with a medal. I think I could have. It was there for me. I just didn’t have the practice under my belt this week.”
On a snowy evening at Deer Valley Resort, Aliaksandra Ramanouskaya from Belarus took over the world title, throwing a back lay full full (one back flip, then two flips each with a twist) that has a 4.028 degree of difficulty (DD). She stuck the landing and scored 113.18 points. Liubov Nikitina from Russia and Xu Mengtao from China, the current world cup leader, both jumped 3.525 DDs and finished second and third, respectively, with 89.88 points each (Nikitina’s air and form pulled her ahead in the tie).
Although Caldwell only scored 58.81 points, her performance hopefully marks the beginning of a better year for her. Last February in PyeongChang, Caldwell’s third Olympic Winter Games, she separated her collarbone from her shoulder (known as the acromioclavicular or AC joint) during practice. She still competed but finished 17th.
At first, her doctors thought her shoulder would improve with rehabilitation. But after two months, Caldwell knew she needed surgery to repair the joint.
“We have to move our arms pretty fast, and the normal person might not have needed surgery,” she said. “But I needed surgery if I wanted to continue doing aerials at the level I wanted to compete at.”
Caldwell is the first U.S. woman to land both a full, full, full and The Daddy (a full, double full, full — a jump she did not throw at the 2019 world championships). She has always pushed to do the same jumps as the men and has thus pushed the women’s field. Her goal is to be known as a great athlete, not specified by gender.
She had surgery in June, then missed water ramp training during the summer. When she resumed training, she could only practice single flips and twists. She considered taking the 2018-19 season off. But world championships were coming to her hometown (she grew up in Virginia but now lives in Park City).
“It was a huge push,” she said. “I know that over the four-year [Olympic] cycle, I’m going to need to take a season off. I considered this one. But with having Deer Valley worlds, it was just not an option as a reigning world champion. I wanted to compete here, and I pushed hard to compete here.”
Once on the hill, she rose to the challenge. She could have done “safer” double jumps — such as a full full, with a 3.150 DD. It might have landed her on the podium, if she had done the jump perfectly. But that’s not what Caldwell is about.
“I’m really happy that I came here and did triples and still stayed true to my ethos,” she said. “It was the hardest event in my whole career for me to stay true to that and push and do triples.”
She has another chance to win a world championship medal Thursday night in the team competition. Three skiers from the same nation (one woman and two men, or two women and one man) each jump, and their scores are combined for the team total. The event will make its Olympic debut in 2022.
When asked if she is aiming for the Beijing Games in 2022, Caldwell simply said yep and flashed a huge smile.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.