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Park City's Ashley Caldwell's decision to define her success led to world record, world championship

PARK CITY — The regret Ashley Caldwell wrestled with after her disappointing performance in the Sochi Olympic Games had nothing to do with the medal she didn’t earn.

“I set my standards too low,” said the 24-year-old aerial skier who hopes to make her third Olympic team this winter. “I set my expectations too low. Looking back on it, and I know hindsight is 20-20, but I should have been like, ‘I can win gold!’ But I didn’t know that. I just had two ACL reconstructions, so I had not competed in a really long time. … I’ve learned from my behavior, and my attitude has totally changed.”

Caldwell said the first moments after a crash landing ended her hopes of making the finals were crushing because she’d underestimated her abilities. She vowed to never do that again, and that commitment has made her the 2017 world champion and one of the few women willing to even attempt triple flips.

“To have that (low) expectation, it was almost more devastating to me than if I had said ‘I want to win gold’ and then I didn’t do it,” said Caldwell, who now lives in Park City. “So setting your expectations higher than you think is kind of what I’m trying to do now because I don’t want to set my bar too low and then feel like, ‘Wow, I’m really disappointed in myself.’ … I want to be proud of whatever happens at the Olympic Games. If I do the hardest trick out there, my best, and I did everything I possibly could, that’s when I’ll be proud.”

In the wake of those 2014 Games, Caldwell realized she could no longer just do what it took to win competitions. She had to set her own standards and write her own rules of success. It’s changed just about everything she does from training to how she strategizes the three rounds of competitions that aerial skiers have to master to earn World Cup wins and Olympic glory.

That led her to attempt a full-double-full-full — which is a triple flip with four twists — at last year’s World Championship finals. She’d worked on it for two years in training, including two attempts on snow that ended in crashes.

“The first time I landed it was at Worlds,” Caldwell said with a smile. “In Sochi, I did a triple twisting triple, and now I’m doing a quad twisting triple. I just added one more spin, and that’s what makes it so I’m holding the world record for the hardest trick ever landed by a woman in our sport. So I’m coming into this Olympic Games with a totally different attitude and confidence level than I had in Sochi.”

Caldwell isn’t just a reckless thrill-seeker. She is a methodical, committed tactician who doesn’t mind risk because it offers her the greatest opportunity for reward. While she used to step down her degree of difficulty when it looked like she could get away with it and advance or earn a medal, she said she no longer does that.

“I obviously like winning events, and that’s awesome and great,” she said. “But I didn’t want what everyone around me was doing to limit what I thought I could do. So that’s why I pushed for (the triple flips), not just to win competitions, even though that extra degree of difficulty, that extra risk I’m taking does have a great reward of higher start value for me.”

She said too often women don’t see their own abilities as they focus on what other athletes are doing and how they are succeeding. A few women here and there have competed with triples, and they’ve earned wins and respect. But it’s never been required to be the best in women’s aerials.

“I think a lot of it is expectation,” she said of why more women don’t attempt triple flips. “A lot of girls just don’t expect to get to that level. And I just always had that expectation that I wanted to do the tricks the guys were doing. So between that and being scared and taking hits, then there is the necessity of it. If no other girls are competing that trick, what’s the point?” For Caldwell, every day at the top of the hill that leads to the kicker that will launch her into the air is a chance to test herself physically and mentally. She will compete with her triples, whether she needs them or not, at this Friday’s World Cup at Deer Valley. She earned a bronze medal in the first World Cup of the season, and finished 13th last weekend in Russia.

Her teammate, Kiley McKinnon, earned the win in Moscow, and both are jumping with confidence as they head to what the U.S. athletes consider home court at Deer Valley.

The Freestyle World Cup gets underway Wednesday night with mogul finals at 7 p.m. Qualifications begin at 2 p.m. There is a second mogul World Cup on Thursday, with finals again starting at 7 p.m. Friday’s finals for aerials, with three rounds, begin at 8 p.m. The events are free to the public, and there is food for sale and fireworks after every event.