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

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.