Pyeongchang, South Korea • She does the same calculus in her head every time she prepares for competition: risk versus reward.
The reward is tantalizing, shiny, golden. In the world of freestyle skiing, no female aerialist goes as big as often as Ashley Caldwell and, when she stomps her landing, almost no competitor can beat her. The risk is obvious, its toll physically and mentally painful. In the world of freestyle skiing, no female aerialist goes as big as often as Ashley Caldwell and, when she misses her landing, it can hurt in every way imaginable.
As Caldwell enters her third Olympics, she is still searching for her first medal, still relying on the same calculation. It is an exercise in cost-benefit analysis and, for America’s best shot at a gold in aerials, it doesn’t always pay off.
“I’m trying not to crash on my head,” Caldwell said, only half-joking, a few weeks back, as she discussed her strategy going into these Olympics. “I say ‘crash’ way too often.”
“She crashes way too often,” men’s aerialist Mac Bohonnon chimed in.
People, and plenty of them, have suggested a change of strategy, wondering aloud if she would be better off playing things safe. But as Caldwell embarks on her third Olympic Games, she has made it clear she plans to do things her way — a plan just crazy enough it might earn her a gold medal.
“I wish that I took less crashes and I wish that I landed and won more events,” Caldwell said recently. “… But I’d rather get seventh doing my biggest tricks than win a medal playing it safe.”
Caldwell, who will compete in the aerial qualifying round Thursday night in South Korea, promises she will be doing “the biggest tricks you’ll see of any girls that are competing.” Indeed, no woman pushes the envelope in aerials like Caldwell. She was the first female skier to land a full-full-full (three flips, each with a twist). She is one of just two women to have pulled off a full-double-full-full (a jump with three back flips and four twists) in a competition. And her latest effort, a quad-twisting-triple, made history as the most challenging trick landed by a female skier in competition.
“Every damn day she gets up there I’m impressed by her,” Bohonnon said.
Bohonnon and Caldwell have been skiing together since they were 12 years old, and from the beginning Caldwell has been about keeping up with the boys.
“There are no other girls up there doing it with her,” Bohonnon said. “She doesn’t hold herself to what the other girls are doing. She wants to do the same jumps that we do, and now she is. Honestly, every week it’s impressive.”
But it hasn’t yet resulted in Olympic hardware.
At just 16 years old, she reached the finals in Vancouver in 2010, her first Olympic games. A series of knee injuries would keep her off the mountain for nearly two years after that, but couldn’t stop her from earning a spot at the Sochi games in 2014, where she earned a 10th-place finish.
Now Caldwell has her sights set on her first Olympic medal.
If she gets one, it will have been earned the hard way.
And that’s just how Caldwell would prefer it.