- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ashley Caldwell has been here before.

A surprise Olympian at age 16, just a few years after taking up the sport of freestyle aerial skiing, Caldwell is back again at age 20, older, wiser and stronger. Just happy to be in Vancouver at all for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the former Ashburn, Va. resident is looking for a medal in Sochi, Russia when the Games begin again this week.

Caldwell believes she can pull it off. She was composed enough at her first Olympics to finish 10th overall even though she had made the United States national team just two months before the Vancouver games.

“That was unexpected,” Caldwell said. “I didn’t really have any expectations. I’d already made it. And now, heading into Sochi there’s more pressure not just to make the team, but get on the podium.”

It will take some luck. Caldwell says she likely will need to complete three different variations of a triple flip. No female aerialist from the United States has ever done so in competition. As of late January, she hadn’t yet tried to land a trick that includes four twists and three flips. She had just a few weeks of training in late January to get ready to land that one under the glaring spotlight of the Olympics.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Caldwell said. “But not out of reach to say the least.”

Such confidence at age 20 is nothing new for Caldwell. At age 14 she moved to Lake Placid, N.Y., to train full time in a sport she’d only learned about two years earlier. It meant leaving behind a regular high school schedule with all the activities that entails. Her father, Mark, jokes that driving his young daughter to Dulles Airport for a flight became as routine as dropping off his wife for a business trip.

“I think it was her ability more than anything else,” said Mark Caldwell, a former college football quarterback at Clemson. “She’s always been very mature…We felt like this would be a very fun thing to do and she could excel at it. Obviously, she has.”

There have been struggles, however. Caldwell tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in December 2011, stalling the momentum she had build coming out of Vancouver.

That was bad. It was nothing compared to the following December, just after she had returned to competition, when Caldwell tore the ACL in her left knee. Aerials is a brutal sport where serious injuries are common. The message Caldwell received from her coaches and support staff: You can come back stronger than ever.

Caldwell went through another year of rehabilitation. The initial return to jumping isn’t so scary because the skiers perform their tricks in a pool. That buys them valuable time to get timing and confidence back. But it is the return to the mountain that provides the real test. And Caldwell’s comeback in December landed her a second-place showing at a World Cup event in China. Suddenly, a medal at Sochi seemed possible again.

“I have two bionic knees now,” Caldwell joked.

She will be in her element. Caldwell, after attending an aerials summer camp in Lake Placid at age 13, was invited to join an elite aerial program run by coach Dmitriy Kavunov, an Uzbekistani who spoke Russian. She picked up the language from him and the Russian national team, which also trained in Lake Placid. Caldwell, who says she’s “not fluent, but conversational,” knows that in Sochi her teammates are coming to her to help break the language barrier.

Caldwell still has roots in the Washington, D.C. area even though her parents have moved to Houston. Her time in Ashburn turned her into a rabid Redskins fan. She has used skis with the team’s logo on them in the past, though can’t do so in the Olympics because of sponsorship rules.

The Redskins even sent her cookie dough as a gift following her most recent ACL surgery and Caldwell thought it was “cool” that she and quarterback Robert Griffin III were rehabbing from the same injury at the same time. His comeback season may not have worked out as planned. But Caldwell is ready to make her second Olympics appearance a memorable one.

“There’s so much more coverage, people are really paying attention,” Caldwell said. “An Olympics year really changes the attitude and the atmosphere and I’m really excited to be a part of that again. [Vancouver] was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I never wanted to leave. So going into Sochi I’m ready to embrace everything.”

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