Joy of coming home

Skier Ashley Caldwell holds up the American flag after claiming first place at Lake Placid over the weekend.
Photo courtesy of Mike Dziak

The Olympic village of Lake Placid nestled in the Adirondacks holds a special charm. The site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, it’s a town where the legacy of the Games lives on – a place where memories have been made for athletes over decades.

Freestyle aerials skier Ashley Caldwell, now 23, found a rush or memories flooding her mind last week as she drove into Lake Placid for the first time in two years. A Virginia native, this was her home for five years as a young teen chasing a dream. But amidst the nostalgia was the omnipresent thought of being up on the top of the jump a few days later with thousands down below watching.

“As soon as I land in the airport memories come flooding back,” said Caldwell. “It’s stupid stuff I did as a kid, all the hard work in the gym, jumping on the trampolines, living at the Olympic Training Center, getting my schoolwork done.”

Ashley was like any other 12-year-old girl in 2006, active in gymnastics and just enjoying her childhood in Virginia. Her life changed on Feb. 23 when she watched on NBC as American skier Jeret ‘Speedy’ Peterson threw his legendary Hurricane – a quintuple twisting triple flip – at the Torino Olympics.

“Aerials is one of those sports where people don’t watch it and say ‘hey, I want to do that,’ laughed Caldwell. “It was really my mom who said, ‘Ashley, you can do that.’ She knows me and what I could do and what I would enjoy. I took her word for that.”

Now, fair to say, most moms wouldn’t recommend their daughters huck flips 65-feet in the air. But that’s what Ashley does. And she does it quite well, thank you. A two-time Olympian, she’s the reigning World Cup champion and one of the only female athlete presently doing triple flips.

“When I first saw the sport when I was young, what I saw was a group of athletes that were a bit wild and thrill seekers,” said Caldwell. “But they were also full of hard work and dedication.

“I was hooked. And the rest is history. But it’s still being written.”

With an inspired 12-year-old, the Caldwell family sought out aerials guru Nick Preston at Waterville Valley. Eventually, the young teen moved into a new U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association residence program at Lake Placid under the eye of gymnastics and aerials coach Dmitry Kavunov.

In two years she was knocking down NorAm podiums. And in 2010 she was the youngest Olympian in Vancouver at 16. A year later, at just 17, she won in Lake Placid.

“I brought tears to Hannah Kearney’s eyes,” laughed Caldwell. “That really meant something to me.”

She brought tears to a lot of eyes. But as an athlete seeking to be best in the world, moving up to triple flips was painful – mentally and physically. She took a few big hits along the way. But she stuck with it.

“It’s starting to mellow out for me,” she said. “I have four years of triples under my belt and a lot more confidence. I know what to expect. Yah, sometimes I’m super scared. But I love it up there. I’m super passionate and love that I‘m pushing myself and my sport. I want to show people you can work hard and do what’s required to do triples like the boys. I’m proud and it’s fun.”

It was Saturday night in Lake Placid. A huge crowd gathered at the Intervale Jumping Complex. Caldwell had thrown a triple flip with a layout and two twists on her first jump to take the lead – nice and clean. Now it was down to the finals, with scores zeroed out and everyone equal.

It had been a tough week in Lake Placid. Weather hampered her triples training. But on competition day, she hit a triple twisting triple flip in training that was just so sweet – “best full-full-full I’ve ever done.” With every jump Saturday evening, her smile grew bigger.

At the top of the jump you could see the confidence in her eyes. Coach Matt Saunders gave her the go. She pointed her ID One skis down to the triple kicker and launched high into the midnight black sky – three flips with three twists, something only freestyle aerialists can experience.

Those four seconds in the air felt like a lifetime – a revolving blend of darkness and light as her body catupaulted smoothly around and around.

Then, bam, she stuck the landing and pumped her fist as a deafening roar broke the silence of the crowd. Suddenly, it was like that day five years earlier when she won her first World Cup on the same venue. She grabbed an American flag and held it proudly behind her. The roller coaster of pain she had endured for a decade learning how to become the very best in her sport was cast aside.

“When I showed up for training that afternoon, I knew it was going to be a good day,” said Caldwell. “I haven’t had that much fun in a long time!

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