Aerials team blends youth, experience
Ryan Summerlin January 28, 2014
On one end of the stage was Mac Bohonnon, 18, who had just earned his first World Cup podium and is going to his first Olympics.
On the other end was Emily Cook, 34, who has nine World Cup podiums, six national championships, and has been named to four Olympic teams.
In the middle was Ashley Caldwell, 20, fresh off a second place in a December World Cup in China. Caldwell, the youngest U.S. Olympian in Vancouver in 2010 at age 16, is headed to her second Games.
The three athletes appeared Saturday at a press conference at Deer Valley, where they are training this week before representing the United States in men’s and women’s aerials in Sochi, Russia. They are among the nine members of the U.S. Olympic Freestyle Ski Team announced last week.
In spite of a wide range of age and experience, the aerialists all acted like seasoned veterans in front of the cameras at Deer Valley.
When the 2013-14 season started, Bohonnon admitted in an earlier interview, "I didn’t have any huge expectations other than to have a good time and not to think about it too much." But then came a second-place finish in a World Cup event at Val St. Come, Quebec, on Jan. 14. Four days later he was named the FIS World Cup Rookie of the Year for men’s aerials. A few days after that his coach called to tell him he was headed to Sochi.
"By no means did I ever give up on the Olympics," Bohonnon said at Saturday’s press conference. "That’s kind of what pushes us to train every day, and be the best we can possibly be. But I certainly thought it was definitely a big long shot."
Bohonnon, who hails from Madison, Conn., grew up skiing in Vermont on weekends. He said he soon started building jumps on the edges of the runs and did his first flip at the age of seven or eight. "It may have been an accident," he said with a smile.
He started training in freestyle, was recruited into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA) Elite Aerial Development Program, and spent about four and a half years living and training full time at Lake Placid. At the same time he was taking high-school courses on his own.
"My mom was the drill sergeant to make sure I got my courses done," he said. "I had the phone call every night with her. But last August the U.S. Ski Team and USSA started the U.S. Team Academy [in Park City], which has been just, I think, one of the biggest assets to young athletes in development programs and on the national teams at USSA. It’s a full ski academy, a full school, that caters to all of us athletes at USSA."
When he’s traveling, he said, he’s expected to keep up with his coursework. But chances are his teacher may cut him a little slack for a couple of weeks next month.
Russia may be new to Mac Bohonnon. But to Emily Cook it’s familiar turf. She has won two World Cup events in Moscow – in 2008 and 2011 – and visited Sochi last year to study the site of the upcoming Olympic competition.
"We took a lot of notes, and I think we’re as prepared as we could possibly be going into Sochi," Cook said. "Our coaching staff knows exactly what we’re going to deal with and they’re ready for anything, as are all of us."
Cook grew up in suburban Boston and by the age of four was involved in both skiing and gymnastics. At age 14 she joined Maine’s heralded Carrabassett Valley Academy program. Three years later she was named to the U.S. Ski Team. At 18, after graduating from high school, she enrolled at the University of Utah and drove out to Park City. She has lived here ever since.
"It was the best place to train, the best place to be with the whole team and be with the best coaches in the world. So it was kind of an automatic for me to be out here," she said, following Saturday’s press conference.
Cook was first named to the Olympic team in 2002 but, two weeks later, shattered both feet in a training accident and was unable to compete. Named to take her place on that team was another rising star, Jeret "Speedy" Peterson.
It took three years of rehab before Cook could jump again.
"It was almost exactly a year before the ’06 Olympics that I took my first jump on snow," she said. "So I had a lot of work to do. But I really think that during that time I developed both mentally and physically in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I had just gone to the  Games."
Cook qualified for the Torino Olympics but didn’t make the finals. "[But] I got back to where I was in 2002, when I was hurt, and to me that was the most important thing."
She made the Olympic team again in 2010 and finished 11th at Vancouver, in spite of another injury, a severely bruised heel that forced her to miss two World Cup events and weeks of valuable training.
"I wasn’t quite as prepared as I wanted to be there either. So that’s kind of the thing about going into this [Sochi] Olympics. I feel prepared, I feel healthy, and definitely ready to perform my best at the Games."
Although she’s older than most of her competitors, Cook doesn’t seem to be slowing down. She picked up a pair of World Cup podiums in 2012-13 and finished second in the season standings.
Cook said that this will be her last Olympics and may also be her last World Cup season. "I’ll take March, April, maybe even May, just to kind of think about what I’m going to do next," she said.
The third member of the team, Ashley Caldwell, finished 10th at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics at the age of 16 and picked up two World Cup podiums the following season, including a win at Lake Placid. She was named the 2010 FIS World Cup Rookie of the Year for women’s aerials.
But then came a pair of ACL injuries – one to each knee – that kept her out of competition for two seasons. Her second-place finish in China last December came in her first World Cup event since February 2011.
"Going to the Olympics in 2010 really kind of helped me get through those injuries," Caldwell said. "That was just an incredible experience, as Emily knows and as Mac is soon to find out. It really helped me. I got injured and I was like, ‘Well you know what. I’ve got to push through this. I’ve got to make Sochi.’"
Caldwell started skiing at age three and was a competitive gymnast for 11 years in Virginia before deciding to try aerials after watching the Olympics on TV. She made the U.S. Ski Team at the beginning of the 2010 season after only three years of aerials training.
Caldwell, Bohonnon and Cook are training at Deer Valley this week. They are scheduled to leave for Sochi on Feb. 4 and to compete on Feb. 14 (women) and Feb. 17 (men).