Ashley Caldwell felt her left leg twist underneath her as she hit the ground. She heard the pop in her knee as the ACL ripped to shreds and understood right away what it meant.
Another long rehab. Another season of competition lost. Another hurdle in the budding aerialist’s increasingly long path to Sochi.
But mostly the thought that kept running through the mind of ever blunt, ever optimistic Caldwell as she lay on the snow in Park City, Utah Dec. 20, 2012 was, “Are you serious?”
“I felt gypped,” Caldwell said with a combination of sarcasm and exasperation.
A year earlier Caldwell had torn the ACL in her right knee at the same venue. Now here she was, 363 days later, at the bottom of the same hill with the same searing pain in the one good knee she had left.
Forgive her if she can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“I had worked so hard, I came back, I qualified for jumps,” she said. “I’m at the point where I’m not scared and I felt really confident and now here I am looking at going through the whole process again. It felt like it was very unfair.”
And maybe unavoidable.
When Caldwell went in for her second surgery, her doctor admitted the channel for her right anterior cruciate ligament was so shallow, he figured there was a better than 50/50 chance she’d end up on the operating table again with the ACL in her left knee ripped to pieces. He took no joy in being right.
Funny, Caldwell has kind of enjoyed proving the doubters – including the ones inside her own head – wrong.
A month away from Sochi, Caldwell is in the mix to make her second U.S. Olympic team, just like she always planned after finishing 10th in Vancouver four years ago.
She was runner-up at a World Cup stop in China in her first event back in mid-December and will have three opportunities over the next two weeks to make a pretty compelling case to be on the plane when it heads to Russia in early February.
Heady territory for somebody who spent the bulk of her time during the Olympic cycle away from the snow. The former gymnast from Hamilton, Va., went nearly two years between competitions working mostly on water ramps that offer a decidedly more gentle landing experience than the side of a mountain. And she’d be lying if she said she attacks her sport with the same fearlessness that made her the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic freestyle team in Vancouver.
“I know I’m scared,” she said. “But you try and constantly take all the things that you’ve done to help you understand that you don’t need to be scared and apply them, but it’s still scary.”
Aerials might be one of the most purely terrifying sports in the Olympics. Race down a ramp at full speed, and then launch yourself a half-dozen stories into the air before combining any series of multiple flips and twists into a three-second flight, trying to time everything just right so that your skis land softly in the snow like you’re at the end of a run on a bunny slope.
Aerialists only really need their knees for that last part, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Caldwell’s knees have been rebuilt to the point where she’s confident she can compete for the rest of the decade if not longer if she chooses. Of course, one botched landing in a sport that does what it can to invite them means she’s also a split-second away from perhaps hanging her skis up for good and focusing on that finance degree she earned from SUNY last summer.
School actually helped her cope with the significant down time required to help her knees heal. Rather than spend a pair of winters crisscrossing the globe on the World Cup circuit, she split her time between rehab and studying.
“I needed to direct my energy toward something productive,” she said.
That’s just kind of her way. When doctors cleared her to return to training over the summer, Caldwell and U.S. aerials coach Todd Ossian put together a game plan that focused on making it to Sochi. They haven’t had to deviate from it a bit, a testament to Caldwell’s work ethic coupled with a unique ability to quickly process teaching points.
“If we’re working on a particular skill, something technical, I would plan a couple of weeks for someone else to sort of grasp that concept,” Ossian said. “She is able to do that in the training session or a day.”
A top-three finish at either Deer Valley, Colo., Val St. Come in Canada or Lake Placid, N.Y., over the next 10 days would make Caldwell a virtual lock to head to Russia. She’s done her best to block out the math. If she jumps well, she knows she’ll go. If she doesn’t, she’ll just end up watching it on TV.
It’ll hurt, but then again, she’s gotten used to managing expectations. If Russia doesn’t work out, there’s South Korea in 2018 to think about, or the 2022 Games for that matter.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think my chances are lower, but I know have to work harder than most if I want to get there.”