Ashley Caldwell takes a run for the Women's Aerial Finals during the 2021 Intermountain Healthcare Freestyle International Ski World Cup at Deer Valley Resort on Feb. 6, 2021 in Park City, Utah.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Charles Dickens’s line from A Tale of Two Cities aptly applied to the U.S. freestyle aerials team at the 2021 world championships. Ashley Caldwell and Chris Lillis won two medals each in aerials skiing for the first time ever at world championships last week in Kazakhstan.
Caldwell and Lillis won silver medals in the women’s and men’s aerials competitions, respectively, and the two teamed with Eric Loughran to take a bronze medal in the team event.
The silver and bronze medals give Caldwell a full set of world championship hardware; she won a gold medal at the 2017 world championships. They were Lillis’s first world championship medals.
“Now we know what kind of adjustments we have to make for next year for the Olympics,” said head aerials coach Vlad Lebedev after the team event. “That was great practice and great training, and now we know where we stand, and we know what we have to do to be on the top next year.”
Of Triples, Quads, & Quints
Continuing with Dickens’s prose, the jumps that Caldwell and Lillis landed at the 2021 world championships showed that the U.S. aerials skiers are pushing toward an “epoch of belief”—and an “epoch of incredulity.”
A three-time Olympian, Caldwell, 27, is one of only two women in the world to throw a back full full full jump—three backflips high above the snow, each with a twist. World champion Laura Peel from Australia is the only other female aerialist to have thrown a triple in competition.
Struggling with a neck injury last season, Caldwell had backed off her triple and did double jumps instead. Last summer, she was again able to train her triple. But then knee pain earlier this winter caused her to back down to doubles again. Her triple in the finals at the world championships was the first one she had thrown in competition this season.
Always one to push the boundaries, Caldwell plans on “upping the ante” for the 2022 Olympic year. She wants to land a full double full full—a quad, or four twists, with her three flips—in competition.
“That will be unmatched by the current field of jumpers,” explained Lillis, on a Zoom call with Caldwell from Kazakhstan.
“Unless there’s some secret Chinese training going on!” joked Caldwell.
To win his silver medal, Lillis—22, and an Olympic hopeful—threw a quintuple jump in the men’s finals. He is the first American to throw a quint since Jeret “Speedy” Peterson at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Peterson dubbed his back full triple full full the Hurricane (three backflips, five twists), and the jump landed him a silver medal at the Vancouver Games.
Lillis is honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Peterson. He was 11 the year that the Peterson blew into Olympic history with his Hurricane.
“I grew up watching him compete,” said Lillis. “He’s one of the athletes who got me inspired and passionate about aerials skiing.”
When asked if he had dedicated his quint to Peterson, who committed suicide in July 2011, Lillis reiterated that he is considers it a tremendous honor to have his name spoken in the same conversation as Peterson’s.
In fact, Lillis’s quint is technically more difficult than Peterson’s, or at least it’s scored slightly higher. Peterson’s Hurricane was three flips with a triple twist on the second flip. Lillis’s jump features two twists on the first and third flips and is scored with a 5.000 degree of difficulty compared to 4.900 for the Hurricane.
Asked if he had named his quint yet, Lillis demurred.
“I wish I could,” he said. “I’m not the first person to do a double full full double full, so I can’t name it. I was told yesterday that we should get together and name it.”
Lillis shared the world championship podium with two-time world champion Maxim Burov and bronze medalist Pavel Krotov. The two Russians also landed the same quintuple jump as Lillis.
“We could name it right now!” joked Caldwell.
“The jump works to my strong suits,” said Lillis, in all seriousness. “I just hope I can put it down next year at the Olympics.”
The aerials team event makes its Olympic debut in 2022, and the U.S. team will be a medal favorite. In addition to the bronze medal at 2021 world championships, the U.S. also finished third in a world cup team event earlier this season.
“In the U.S., we’re definitely excited about it because we’ve got Ashley Caldwell throwing triple twisting and quad twisting triples for our team,” explained Lillis.
“Then I have a quint in the bag,” he added. “And other U.S. athletes are looking to add that going to the 2022 Games. We’re looking like a strong team. But mostly, no other country has a woman who is willing and able to throw such a high degree of difficulty trick.”
The team event is mixed gender; either one or two women compete for each team of three. With such a difficult jump, Caldwell often scores as high as some of the men, which boosts the U.S. team’s score.
“It definitely helps [to have the high degree of difficulty],” said Caldwell. “In this last team event, during qualification I fell. But I still was able to score 80 points, which is a pretty solid score.”
And if not Caldwell, the U.S. team is deep on the women’s side, with four aerials skiers ranked in the top ten in the world this season.
The relatively new team event also brings camaraderie to an individual sport, where the skiers want to do well for themselves but more importantly, for their teammates.
“We’re always rooting for our teammates,” said Lillis. “But when your score is directly affected by how they jump and how you jump, then the level of intensity … honestly, I get so nervous. I don’t want to let my teammates down.”
Nerves aside, the athletes are excited to have another chance to win an Olympic medal in aerials.
“I’ve already had some chances to medal and blew those,” quipped Caldwell, referring to her previous three Olympic Games (her best finish is tenth). “So I need a few more chances!”
“An Olympic medal is a huge honor,” said Lillis, whose older brother Jonathan finished eighth in aerials at the 2018 Games. “The fact that we have two chances to do it this time around is definitely a great opportunity, and if we could cash in on one of those and bring home medals for the United States, that would be huge.”
Worst of Times?
As for the worst of times? After world championships, Caldwell and Lillis tested positive for Covid-19. Both have recovered from symptoms and are quarantining in their hotel in Kazakhstan.
Both are in good spirits and looking forward to returning home next week. This summer, they will work on their quad twisting triples and quints—jumps that if they land will put them in medal contention in Beijing.
The U.S. has not won an Olympic gold medal in aerials since Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone each won golds at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games Nagano.
“The U.S. team is definitely on a collision course with the top,” said Lillis. “We’ve been growing every year, and the team gets deeper and has more expectations for every world cup. Going into the Olympic season, we will be stronger than ever.”