Aerial skier Ashley Caldwell embraces fear, prepares to conquer it in Beijing

Ashley Caldwell competes at the 2021 Intermountain Healthcare Freestyle International Ski World Cup at Deer Valley Resort.
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UPDATE: Ashley Caldwell captures dream gold as U.S. wins the inaugural Olympic mixed team aerials event. Ahead of the Beijing Winter Games; On Her Turf caught up with Caldwell about her goals for these Games. 

Originally published: January 26, 2022

U.S. aerial skier Ashley Caldwell may be heading to her fourth Winter Olympics next week, but nothing about hucking herself off an icy 15-foot kicker at more than 40 miles per hour and nailing dare-devil tricks at 60 feet in the air and landing on her feet is old hat.

For the 28-year-old Caldwell, the 2017 World Championship gold medalist and the only woman to ever land a quadruple-twisting triple backflip in competition, it’s that rush of adrenaline — and natural instinct to pump the brakes — that keeps her on her toes and coming back for more.

“When you’re the most scared you’ve ever been and then you go and overcome that fear — it’s incredible, an incredible feeling, and so I live for that,” Caldwell said in a recent episode of the On Her Turf podcast. (The full episode of the On Her Turf podcast featuring Ashley Caldwell is embedded below. You can also listen to the On Her Turf podcast on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.)

“The fear never goes away, and every time it’s telling you the same thing: Don’t do what you’re about to do, because it’s a bad idea, bad idea … But I think I like overcoming fear, ultimately, I think that’s what it boils down to.”

Her parents, Mark and Leslie Caldwell, were quick to recognize that spark in their daughter, who started practicing gymnastics at age 4. After watching the freestyle competitions in 2006 in Torino, it was Caldwell’s mother who suggested she try combining her love of skiing with gymnastics… and a career path was born.

At just 13, Caldwell moved from her hometown of Ashburn, Va., to upstate New York to train full-time. She made her first U.S. Olympic team in 2010, finishing 10th, and replicated the result in 2014 at Sochi. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, she was set to throw the toughest trick in her arsenal – the quadruple-twisting triple backflip nicknamed “the Daddy” for its status as a skill that signals one’s arrival as a contender.

But on her last training jump before competition, a freak gust of wind caught Caldwell mid-trick and she crashed out hard, separating her collarbone from her shoulder (known as the acromioclavicular or AC joint). She still competed but finished 17th.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 U.S. Olympic team could break record for most female competitors

“It’s ‘go big or go home,'” said Caldwell, who had surgery to repair her shoulder and has since recorded five World Cup podium finishes and two more at the 2021 World Championships. “Sometimes it’s ‘go big and go home,’ sometimes it’s just ‘go home.’ …

“I have to continually conquer my fear. Sometimes it’s just telling yourself, ‘I’ve been here, I’ve done this,’ even though fear is still just as overtaking. The reward is still there, I know it.”

Caldwell, who has her master’s in real estate development and is working on a second in legal studies at the University of Utah, also knows that she has more to accomplish and has her eye on the Olympic medal that has thus far eluded her. No U.S. female aerialist has won an Olympic title since Nikki Stone in 1998, when she took gold with a trick that was one flip and two twists less than what Caldwell could unleash in Beijing.

“(After my accident in 2018), the next day I woke up and I really want to do aerials,” she recalls. “That’s when I knew I’m not done yet, I still love the sport. This sport just broke my heart and my shoulder at the same time, the same day, and I still want to go do it. So it’s not always about the success or the failure, I just really like doing this.”

2022 Winter Olympics: Schedule for Women’s Aerials and Mixed Team Aerials

Sport Event Date / Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date / Time (Beijing, China)
Freestyle Skiing Mixed Team Aerials 2/10/22 6:00 AM 2/10/22 7:00 PM
Women’s Aerials (Qualifying) 2/13/22 6:00 AM 2/13/22 7:00 PM
Women’s Aerials (Final) 2/14/22 6:00 AM 2/14/22 7:00 PM

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: How to watch every women’s event at the 2022 Winter Olympics