The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang will be the third that freestyle aerial skier Ashley Caldwell has trained for — and you better believe the Olympic hopeful plans on knocking her past performances out of the park. It’s not that she hasn’t taken her previous competitions seriously; on the contrary, Caldwell, 24, previously competed in both the 2010 and 2014 games, and in 2017, she took home the gold at the FIS Freestyle World Championships. As she looks ahead toward the PyeongChang Olympics, though — which are only two months away, as of Dec. 8 — she wants to aim even higher: “I want to make sure that I put as much as I can into having the biggest goals that I can,” Caldwell tells Bustle in an interview. In 2018, she’s reaching for a medal.
Caldwell was 12 years old and following the 2006 Torino Olympics on TV when she first considered taking up freestyle aerial skiing. Her early training was actually in gymnastics; however, she'd also been skiing her entire life — and her mom was the one that made the connection between the two. “After watching the aerials event, my mom, surprisingly, said that I should try to do aerials because I was good at acrobatics and I loved to ski,” Caldwell tells Bustle. “I told her she was nuts for telling her 12-year-old daughter that she should go do what I thought were, like, five backflips and a million flips.”
Clearly, her mom was onto something — as Caldwell puts it, “She knew that as a 12-year-old, 13-year-old gymnast, I was too tall and my Olympic dreams were way past gone” — and encouraged Caldwell to sign up for a summer camp where she’d be able to try out freestyle skiing generally. The camp, in turn, encouraged her to try aerials by doing backflips in a pool facility that freestyle skiers use to learn their tricks — and that was that. As Caldwell puts it, “I went out, started doing some backflips, and fell in love with the sport.” From there, she earned a spot on the development team, moved away from home to ramp up her training, and went on to compete in the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver at the age of 16. She'd only been doing the sport for around two years.
Caldwell describes freestyle aerial skiing as an event where “basically everyone goes up and does as many flips and twists on skis that they can.” The goal is to keep your form as straight as possible while you’re in the air, to land as cleanly as possible once you come back to the ground, and (of course) to carry off the most difficult tricks you can. “It’s kind of like diving in the sense that you go out and you can kind of pick your trick — and then you’re judged on that trick based on your takeoff, your air and form, and your landing,” Caldwell says. Then, your score is multiplied by the trick’s degree of difficulty. Scoring happens in rounds; the person with the highest score at the end of the last round wins.
It was actually something of a surprise to Caldwell that she even made it to the 2010 games; recall that at that point, she’d only been freestyle aerial skiing for about two years. “I had Olympic goals,” she says, “but they were for 2014, so going to the 2010 games was way beyond my expectations to begin with.” As such, she had no intention of trying to medal that time round (although she did place 10th, which she emphasizes, again, was “far beyond my expectations”); she did, however, use it as a learning experience. “I kind of learned what it was like to be there, and the pressure, and the atmosphere,” she says; her plan was to take what she learned during the 2010 games and carry it over into her preparation for the 2014 games.
But things didn’t go quite according to plan: Although Caldwell did compete in the 2014 games at Sochi, she quickly realized that each Olympic Games are very much their own beast. “You’re such a different athlete in four years that all the things I thought I’d learned [during the 2010 games] didn’t actually apply,” she says. “Each athlete changes so much in four years that it’s kind of hard to take away everything from one Olympic Games to the next.”
Additionally, Caldwell tore two ACLs between her first Olympics and her second. “I hadn’t competed in almost three years going into the Olympic season, and I kind of had no idea what was going to happen to me going into [the 2014] games,” she says. Originally she had intended to try to medal at Sochi, but after spending so much time injured, she adjusted her goal to simply going to the Olympics at all.
She met that goal — but she also says that in hindsight, she wishes she’d aimed a little higher. She made the qualifying round, but a bad landing in the finals knocked her out of the running for a medal. “I was in a spot where I had the chance to medal and I wish that I’d had loftier goals at that point,” she says.
This time, however, will be different. After the 2014 games, she says, “I realized it’s hard to be prepared for the Olympic Games because they’re so dramatically different and I’m such a different athlete — but I want to make sure that I put as much as I can into having the biggest goals that I can. And if I don’t meet them, at least I went out and set the bar as high as I could for myself instead of just wanting to go again.”
Indeed, that’s her philosophy for competing in general these days. She’s achieved a lot of firsts in her career — she was the first U.S. woman to land a trick referred to as a full, full, full, as well as the first woman to cleanly land a trick colloquially known as “The Daddy” — but although she says that she’s of course proud to say that she’s the first woman to have accomplished these records, ultimately, her ultimate goal is to set a different standard. “I want to do them for myself, and see how good I can be,” she says — and encourage people of all genders to reach for the loftiest goals they can.
Looking toward PyeongChang, she intends to medal — and you’d better believe she’s going to push herself as hard as she can to win it.
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Winter Games begin Feb. 8.