Ashley Caldwell captures dream gold as U.S. wins inaugural Olympic mixed team aerials

Gold medallists Ashley Caldwell, Christopher Lillis and Justin Schoenefeld of Team United States pose during the Freestyle Skiing Mixed Team Aerials.
Getty Images
0 Comments

U.S. aerial skier Ashley Caldwell chased down her dream Thursday in Beijing as Team USA edged out favorite China to win the inaugural gold medal in mixed team aerials at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“I’ve been on a hunt for a gold medal for a long time now and have been pushing myself incredibly hard to do jumps I’ve never done before,” said the 28-year-old Caldwell, the 2017 World Championship gold medalist from Ashburn, Va., who was making her fourth Olympics appearance. “This is a dream come true.”

Caldwell landed a triple-twisting triple backflip in her second run to help the U.S. secure its first gold medal in aerials since 1998 when Eric Bergoust and Nikki Stone won the men’s and women’s events, respectively, in Nagano. The 2022 win also marked the first medal in aerials for Team USA since the late Jeret “Speedy” Peterson won silver in 2010.

Making gold even sweeter was accomplishing the feat alongside teammates Christopher Lillis and Justin Schoenefeld, whom Caldwell has been dating for three years.

“To do it with these guys is incredible,” she told media afterward. “Chris has been like a brother to me forever, and Justin is the love of my life, so that really helps.”

The American trio recorded a combined 338.34 to rally past a more experienced Chinese squad, which led after the first round. But along with great chemistry, Caldwell contributed the win to their aggressive degree of difficulty, with 23-year-old Lillis going for the most technically difficult trick of the night – a quintuple twisting triple referred as a back double Full-Full-double Full. He was rewarded with 135 points, the highest score seen so far in Beijing.

“I’ve always pushed myself to do harder tricks to show the world that women can do it,” said Caldwell, whose trick earned a score of 88.86. “To have more women in sport at a high level, it’s great for the world.”

MORE WINTER OLYMPICS: For Jessie Diggins, joy is in working hard, not just winning medals

The U.S. entered the highest degree of difficulty in the qualification round, with their sequence of jumps totaling 13.343 – 0.1 higher than China. The Chinese came into Beijing having won four of seven World Cup mixed team events, including the only two World Cups this season prior to the Games.

The U.S. made the podium just once this season, with Lillis, Schoenefeld and Winter Vinecki finishing second in one of them. In 2021, Caldwell and Lillis joined Eric Loughran to win mixed team bronze at the World Championships.

“It’s a sport of uncertainties,” said China’s Xu Mengtao, who threw the same trick as Caldwell – a back Full-Full-Full – and recorded the top score among the women with a 106.03. “The added scores are always changing after every athlete, and as the first athlete on our team, all I wanted to do is the lay a solid foundation for my whole team.”

The silver marked the second medal in freestyle skiing in Beijing for host country China after Eileen Gu won the Olympic women’s big air on Feb. 8. It also made Jia Zongyang the third athlete to claim an Olympic medal in freestyle skiing in three Games, joining Canada’s, Mikael Kingsbury and Norway’s Kari Traa.

Canada took bronze for its second in freestyle skiing at Beijing following the Kingsbury’s silver in men’s moguls on Feb. 5. Canadian Miha Fontaine added to his family legacy with his bronze medal performance, following in the footsteps of his father Nicolas Fontaine, who won aerials silver at Albertville in 1992.

“I knew we were a strong team, but we had never actually been in a final in these team events,” noted Canadian Marion Thenault, who earned a 62.74 with a back-double full-full. “First final, first podium. I just can’t believe I’m an Olympic medalist.”

Women’s Aerials Schedule at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Event  Date / Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date / Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Aerials (Qualifying) 2/13/22 6:00 AM 2/13/22 7:00 PM
Women’s Aerials (Finals) 2/14/22 6:00 AM 2/13/22 7:00 PM

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

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
Getty Images
0 Comments

Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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.
Getty Images
0 Comments

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.”