Ashley Caldwell’s approach to competition has brought her more disappointment than elation — especially this year.
That’s because the gymnast turned aerial skier isn’t just attempting to earn higher scores than the other women who also find their purpose in a sport that asks them to flip and twist off a frozen kicker on mountainsides around the world.
The 23-year-old, who lives and trains in Park City, doesn’t find her greatest adversary in another skier.
In fact, her strategy never even considers what someone else might do — or not do.
For Caldwell, finding out exactly what she is capable of accomplishing is as important as any medal she might earn.
“I care a lot about winning,” she said the day after she claimed her first world championship completing a trick she’d never landed in her life. “But the jumps come first. It was a big risk for me to do that trick, but that’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m pushing to do. And there is not a better time to do it than the finals at the world championships.”
The trick she landed was a full-double-full-full, which is a triple flip with four twists, and it is so difficult, no other woman has ever landed it in competition. In fact, it’s only been attempted twice in competition — one of those by Caldwell this winter — but neither landed it.
The difficulty was evident in the scores, which are usually separated by points or fractions of points. She won with a score of 109.29, while Australia’s Danielle Scott earned silver with 94.47 points.
Caldwell’s world championship is the first for a U.S. woman in 22 years. The two-time Olympian arrived in Spain last week with 11 career World Cup podiums in her seven-year career. Her most recent victory was on Jan. 11, and it marked her sixth gold medal.
The truth is that she’s struggled this year, failing to even make the World Cup finals on her home course at Deer Valley or in the Olympic test event in PyeongChang.
“It’s been a difficult year,” she said. “I try really hard to push the sport by doing triples, and sometimes that doesn’t work out. It’s a greater reward but higher risk. Sometimes that risk doesn’t pay off, sometimes it does.”
It nearly didn’t during the world championships.
She nearly fell in the first round of qualifying and headed into the second round of competition in ninth place — making the cutoff by just three skiers.
“My degree of difficulty is high enough that it allows me to mess up a little and still make it through those rounds,” she said. “Triples are difficult, and there aren’t a lot of girls out there doing triples, and that makes it even more difficult to do them.”
That’s because the natural temptation is to simply try and outscore the other athletes in a competition. Caldwell, however, said she avoids that temptation by coming up with her plan well in advance of competition.
“It’s always been a huge goal of mine,” she said of landing the jump. “It was my plan all season to compete with it in world championships, and I would have loved to have trained it earlier in the season. Aerials is a difficult sport because no matter how much you have a plan some variable will not allow you to stick to it — weather, your body, something just doesn’t work out. At this event, we had the right training, I felt the site was good, and it was an opportune moment.”
She said she’s still trying to come to terms with what she accomplished in Spain.
“It was kind of surreal,” she admitted. “It’s still kind of hitting me. As a professional athlete, you don’t ever feel like you did good enough, even if you win. I always want more — stay straighter in the air, land better, just keep pushing myself. But at the same time, it was exhilarating to be the first woman ever to land that trick.”
What made a dream realized even more satisfying is that teammate and one-time roommate Jon Lillis, who has only one World Cup victory to his credit, earned the men’s world championship. He edged China’s two-time defending world champion Qi Guangpu with a winning score of 125.79.
She said it was training with Lillis and teammate Mac Bohonnon and Alex Bowen that actually helped her set her sights higher than they might otherwise be. When she started seven years ago, she noticed a massive gap between what the men in aerial skiing were able to do and what winning women were capable of competing. She set out to change that with some inspiration from her friends.
“Moving through the ranks with them,” she said, “I always compared myself to them. I felt like if I kept doing the tricks they did, I could push the sport. I owe a lot of my success to just trying to be as good as them.”
Caldwell acknowledges her approach may be a bit unorthodox as most aerial skiers will adjust their jumps based on what they need to land in order to advance or win — especially with the world championship on the line.
But her plan was, and always had been, to use the world championships as a sort of “test run for the Olympics.”
Sticking to a game plan laid out weeks or months in advance is tough — especially when it doesn’t appear to be working.
“When it doesn’t work out a few times in a row, you second-guess that mentality,” she said. “Some people have talked to me about that. “They say, 'you could do easier tricks and win.’ But something in me doesn’t like that. I want to do the hardest tricks I can. Some people don’t get that, but that’s how I want to compete, that’s the kind of athlete I want to be. I’d rather lose putting it all out there, trying my hardest, than by holding back.”