Published February 05, 2010
As life-defining moments go, Ashley Caldwell's was decidedly low-key.
The budding 16-year-old aerialist was playing basketball at the U.S. Winter Olympics training center in Lake Placid a couple weeks ago when coach Ryan Snow popped his head in the door.
"He came in and he goes 'Hey Ashley, you're on the Olympic team, good job Kiddo,'" Caldwell said. "I was like, 'Cool. Awesome. Yes.'"
And then the youngest and most surprising member of the US Olympic Freestyle team went right back to shooting hoops.
No celebration. No shouting. No frantic texting. The former gymnast-turned-aerials prodigy didn't even call her parents Mark and Leslie until a few hours later.
"It just really didn't hit me," Caldwell said.
Maybe because Vancouver was never part of the plan. Not the original plan, anyway.
When Caldwell opted to ditch gymnastics for aerials — think of it as gymnastics on skis — a couple years ago, she was simply looking for a new challenge and possibly a sport with a few more opportunities at the elite level.
Her parents suggested attending freestyle skiing summer camp in New Hampshire back in 2007. She was immediately hooked.
Here was a sport that allowed her to continue flipping upside down — "it's kind of my thing," she said — while doing it five stories in the air.
It's exactly what the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association had in mind. Alarmed at how the American aerials team — which has just one silver medal since Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone won gold in 1998 — was getting surpassed by Winter Olympic newcomers like China and Australia, the USSA responded by starting the Elite Air Program.
The goal is to cultivate potential jumpers by giving them the guidance, teaching and support difficult to find at the club level.
"We fast track these athletes forward so we can be more competitive," said USA Freestyle coach Jeff Wintersteen. "It's not like China, who is waist deep in girls 10-years-old and incredibly acrobatic. We could see the writing on the wall and we had to adapt to it."
Caldwell's talent was immediately evident, yet her work ethic — culled from thousands of hours in the gym as a kid —is what set her apart from the kids in the fledgling program.
Consider this: Caldwell did 15,000 layouts on the trampoline last summer, documenting each one. That number doesn't include the more difficult back-full layouts and double-full layouts that became part of her routine as she progressed.
"It takes a special kid to be able to do that," Wintersteen said. "Ashley is a superior kid. She's tailor made for what she's doing right now."
Even if she didn't quite know how quickly she was coming along. Caldwell was so focused on her long-term goal: making the Olympic team in time for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, that she didn't see Vancouver as a possibility.
It took a pep talk from coach Dmitriy Kavunov during a rough patch last summer to get her attention. Caldwell was struggling and the perfectionist in her was growing frustrated. Her body language — slumping — showed she was in the need of a slight attitude adjustment.
Kavunov told her to relax and enjoy herself, remember that she was only a teenager and try to have some fun. If she did that, Kavunov said, the Olympics would come.
"He was like, 'I really need you to work hard because I want to take you to the Olympic Games,'" Caldwell said.
She rolled her eyes and said "Yeah, yeah, Sochi, I know."
"He said, 'Actually, I mean Vancouver,'" she said. "I guess I didn't have a realistic view. I didn't realize how I would stack up and do as well as I did."
Caldwell might not have been paying attention, but she was the only one. Vancouver popped into Wintersteen's radar after Caldwell received two perfect scores in competition last February.
"We were pretty excited about her," he said. "But we were concerned because we'd seen the mistakes other nations have made in terms of moving athletes through. We didn't want to move her too quickly."
Caldwell's precociousness didn't give them much choice. She finished second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in December, then put together a pair of top-12 performances in World Cup events last month.
When the U.S. Olympic Freestyle team opted not to send a female skicrosser to Vancouver, it created the chance to bring more than three skiers in other disciplines.
Suddenly, the Elite Air Program had its first Olympic graduate four years ahead of schedule.
Though her teammates tease her from time to time about her age, to be honest, she enjoys it. The oldest of four kids, she's always played the role of big sister. It's kind of fun being the new kid.
"It's a nice older-sibling bond that I have with them, which is really nice," she said. "I get along better with these guys than I do anybody my own age."
It's a maturity that was evident two summers ago to teammate Emily Cook. The longtime aerials veteran, now 30, shared a room with Caldwell for two months in the summer of 2008.
"She's just an amazing girl," Cook said. "I've been around for quite a while, and to have someone with such a fresh take on the sport, it's humbling."
Caldwell's take includes a pretty ambitious goal: jumping as well as the men do. They way she sees it, there's still plenty of room to grow in women's aerials, and she doesn't see it as a sport where all the big tricks — like teammate Jeret Peterson's "Hurricane" — have to belong to the guys. She'd like to close the gap.
The journey begins in Vancouver. She'd like to make the finals, but doesn't see herself on the medal stand. At least not this time.
Still, gold — be it in Sochi or beyond — remains the focus. She met Bergoust for the first time at an event in Utah recently. The quirky Bergoust actually had his Olympic gold medal in his pocket. He asked Caldwell if she wanted to hold it.
"I told him I was going to wait and get one of my own," she said with a laugh.
She was kidding. She took it in her hands to get the feel of it, then the legend and the new torchbearer spent 20 minutes talking shop.
It's not the normal life of an American teenager. That's just fine with Caldwell.
"Going to Prom, going to Homecoming, going out on dates, anybody can have those experiences," she said. "I'm traveling the world and meeting Olympians."
Including the one in the mirror.