What It Takes

It’s not often you hear about kids finishing high school at age 15 to pursue a career as an Olympic freestyle aerial skier, especially kids from the Mid-Atlantic.

That, however, is exactly what Virginia native Ashley Caldwell did. Though the Blue Ridge is rarely recognized as a world-class skiing destination, that doesn’t mean our slopes can’t produce some top-notch shredders.

From the runs of Round Top to the routine floor at Apex Gymnastics, Caldwell’s childhood was defined by pushing limits. That’s why when she saw U.S. aerial freestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson land a triple backflip with five twists in the 2006 Winter Olympics, Caldwell’s immediate thought was, “I can do that.”

And do that she did. At age 14, Caldwell left her home in Ashburn, Va., to try out for the U.S. Olympic Ski Team in Lake Placid, N.Y. The coaches there were so impressed that they signed her on under the training of Russian coach Dmitriy Kavunov. She moved north to train full-time and just two years later, Caldwell would become the youngest to compete on the U.S. Olympics team, placing 10th overall in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

She’s since racked up the World Cup rookie of the year for women’s aerials and two World Cup podiums (gold and silver). She’s a four-time NorAm winner, a two-time U.S. Nationals silver medalist, a 2014 U.S. National Champion, a top 10 finisher in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the only U.S. female athlete who can land triples in competition. Even more impressive is the fact that she’s managed to accomplish all of this before becoming old enough to legally celebrate such victories with a cold beer.

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Her road to success hasn’t been an easy journey, as she’ll be the first to tell you. At just 18 years old, Caldwell had already torn both of her ACLs, injuries that set her on the sidelines for two seasons. That certainly hasn’t slowed her down any, and Caldwell is well on the way to claiming her rightful spot on the podium in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

So what’s it like to be an Olympic superstar? What does it take to launch your body over 60 feet in the air, throw a few flips and twists for good measure, and then smoothly land back on terra firma? Though Herculean in feat, Caldwell is, at the end of the day, just like any 21-year-old girl—charming, goofy, and a sucker for cookie dough.

Those jumps look scary. Do people ever think you’re crazy?

Yeah, some people don’t get why I do it. On the one hand, it is very crazy, but it’s extremely fun. I live for the fun of being scared and overcoming that fear.

So, if hurling yourself into the air doesn’t scare you, what does?

Not getting better at something—not just aerials but life.

Most of the tricks look pretty similar. Don’t you get bored?

It’s a technical sport, so you’re aiming for perfection. But yes, training the same tricks can sometimes get a little boring.

How do you train in the off-season?

Trampolines, swimming pools, and videos.

What’s your signature trick? Full full full. That’s a triple flip with three twists.

What do you do to get pumped to compete?

Honestly, nothing. I just try to be the weirdest person at the top of the hill. You can’t take it too seriously.

Really? You don’t even jam to some tunes pre-comp?

During training, we listen to Alt Nation. Right now my favorite song is Stolen Dance by Milky Chance. Everybody knows I have to jump when that song comes on.

How do you fuel up for the big day? Pounds of pasta?

I’m a big fan of sweet potatoes. But also lots of cookie dough and whipped cream. I don’t know if my coach would be too psyched I said that, and I’m all for eating healthy, but I believe if you’re happy, you’re going to train better.

You’ve skied around the world. Where’s your favorite place to shred it up?

I don’t know if I could say I have a favorite, but there’s nothing like home turf (Park City, Utah).

What about in our neck of the woods?

I started skiing when I was around 3 years old. My dad was the one that taught me. So places like Round Top in Virginia and Snowshoe and Seven Springs, those were where my skiing really took off.

Do you plan on being a professional skier forever?

God I hope not. I have a degree in finance and I’d like to get my MBA in the future. My dad is into real estate development, so I want to follow in his footsteps one day.

What advice would you give Olympic-hopeful athletes?

Train hard, but play harder.

When you’re not on the slopes what are you doing?

Hanging out with friends. Bouncing around on a trampoline. I also like to read a lot.

Reading? Any favorite books?

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is definitely a favorite. And Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Any words of wisdom you’ve taken away from those readings?

From the books? No. But have you ever seen How I Met Your Mother? My go-to quote comes from Barney—“Whenever I’m being lame, I just stop and be awesome instead.”

I think I know the answer to this already, but I’ll give it a whirl. What’s your favorite season?

Summer.

Summer? That doesn’t make sense.

You’d be surprised how many winter athletes hate the cold. I love what I do, but I wish I could do it at a beach.

The beach, huh? So what’s your favorite beach?

I would say Hawaii, but that’s not fair. The Outer Banks in North Carolina is awesome. I just started surfing and I love it.

Are you any good at it?

Not yet. It’s cool because it’s a lot like freestyle aerial skiing—you only get a split-second chance to do it right.

So if you had to choose, would you live on snowy slopes or in tropical bliss?

I think ideally I want to live with a few people on a beach somewhere where I can surf and read books all day.

Dogs or cats?

Dogs. I’m allergic to cats. They make my eyes swell shut.

Ski hero?

Ryan St. Onge. But I may be biased. He’s my boyfriend.

Somewhere you want to ski but haven’t yet?

Anywhere in the Swiss Alps. Or the backcountry of Alaska. That’d be sweet.

Coffee or hot chocolate?

Coffee. But with extra whipped cream.