Olympic aerialist Ashley Caldwell getting lift from coaches old and new

Three-time Olympian and new U.S. aerials coach Vlad Lebedev trained under same coach at Lake Placid

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team prepare the snow on the landing hillside prior to practice Jan. 7, 2020 at the Utah Olympic Park.

Kimball Junction • The moon had risen far above the horizon and the lights of Kimball Junction had been twinkling for hours in the valley below. Many of the aerial jumpers on U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s World Cup team had already traded their ski bibs and boots for sweatpants and Uggs and were en route to a burger joint for a late dinner before collapsing into bed.

Ashley Caldwell wasn’t among them. The three-time Olympian, who is still rehabbing from a shoulder surgery she underwent in 2018, stood on the steep landing slope alongside teammate Chris Lillis, shovel in hand, chopping away at the hardpack. Breaking it up tonight would make for softer landings tomorrow.

Less than 25 feet up the mountain, another member of the team toiled in dark solitude. New U.S. aerials head coach Vladimir Lebedev wielded his shovel on the 10-, 12, and 14-foot ramps, scraping them with its edge until the ice gleamed like frosted glass.

“It’s the details,” Lebedev said in a thick Russian accent when asked what kept him in the cold long after most others had left, “they can make the difference.”

Caldwell, 26, and Lebedev, 51, came to appreciate the merits of hard work and attention to detail via the same source: former U.S. and Russian aerials coach Dmitry Kavunov. Both believe the mixture of Kavunov’s principles, plus a dash of daring, can catapult an athlete onto the podium at the Olympics.

Lebedev has lived it, winning the bronze medal for Russia at the 2006 games in Torino, Italy, as a student of Kavunov. Caldwell hopes to follow suit. A three-time Olympian who came up under Kavunov in the United States’ athlete development program at Lake Placid in New York, she is striving to earn her first Olympic medal at the 2022 games in Beijing.

By chance, they’ll pursue that goal together. US Ski & Snowboard named Lebedev the head aerials coach in July. That reunited him with Caldwell, who was just 16 and training under Kavunov when they first met in Lake Placid while the Russian team was training at the jumping pools there.

“In a way, we were kind of friends,” Lebedev said. “She’s definitely younger than me, but she liked training on the same ramps as me.”

That’s no surprise, since Caldwell has built her reputation on pushing herself to be as good or better than her male counterparts. Her daring is one of the qualities that led her to such early success in the sport, which she picked up after spending 10 years in gymnastics.

She met Kavunov when she was 15 and trained under him for about five years. That included a period in which the coach left the U.S. to coach the Russian aerials team. He kept her on as a student, however, and helped her make her first Olympic team at age 16.

“He was the one who taught me all my degrees of difficulty,” Caldwell said. “He was the one I learned all my tricks under except one or two. He was the one who taught me the higher-level-of-performance attitude.

“He was the one who formed me, I would say.”

If she got her foundation from Kavunov, she got her precision from Todd Ossian. Ossian served as head aerials coach for the U.S. Ski Team for almost 10 years before retiring last May. More of a “tilt coach,” according to Caldwell, Ossian focused less on the amplitude of jumps and more on perfecting their execution: hand and head placement, knee bends, etc.

Caldwell said Lebedev is a little of both. He sees the value in Ossian’s line of thinking but he also sees the limitations, a trait for which he credits Kavunov, who is currently the coach of the Chinese national team.

“Some coaches are super focused on someone’s technique. A lot of coaches are thinking that’s the most important thing to be successful in this sport,” Lebedev said. “He explained to me and proved to me that your vision has to be way wider.”

Whether or not Lebedev and Caldwell’s shared history and vision creates any magic on the ramps most likely won’t be revealed this weekend during the Freestyle International Ski World Cup at Deer Valley. The 2017 World Champion said she’s “taking a step back” mentally and physically this season after pushing herself to return — probably too soon, she now admits — from shoulder surgery to try to defend her world title at Deer Valley last year. She instead placed fifth overall, though first among the Americans.

One of only a handful of women in the world who performs triple flips, she hopes the break will give her more fire in her push to not just make the Olympic team but medal in Beijing in 2022.

Caldwell will spend some of her in-between time getting reacquainted with Lebedev as her coach. He said they will focus on the little things they can do to make a better environment for her success. Sometimes that includes chopping up the packed snow on the landing hill. Sometimes, it’s channelling Kavunov’s “make it work” approach.

“He will work on strategy,” Caldwell said of Lebedev, “but at the end of the day, you just need to go do it.”


At Deer Valley

Thursday — Moguls, 1:40 p.m. start; 7:30 p.m. finals

Friday — Aerials, 2:15 p.m. start; 7:30 p.m. finals

Saturday — Dual moguls, 4:15 p.m. start; 7:30 p.m. finals

Admission: Free

TV: Olympic Channel, NBCSN, NBC