Freestyle phenom

Ashley Caldwell makes a jump during the qualifying round last month in the women's World Cup freestyle skiing aerials event in Park City, Utah.

Colin E Braley

Enough wisecracks about the Isle of Palms having more snow last week than Vancouver.

The Ravenel Bridge never officially opened as a ski slope, and Lowcountry politicians will not offer relocation incentives to speed skaters.

But one of the most compelling athletes at the Winter Olympics is a 16-year-old aerial freestyle skier from Daniel Island.

Sort of.

Star phenom Ashley Caldwell, the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team, is a daughter of Mark and Leslie Caldwell. The family moved from Northern Virginia to South Carolina two years ago just as Ashley took up residence at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association training center in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Her earlier-than-expected arrival at the Olympics is the peak of a remarkable ascent launched from long hours of gymnastics competition.

In the blink of a teenager's eye, the almost-famous Ashley Caldwell has become one of the world's best at soaring, twisting, flipping and successfully landing on snow skis.

"It's hard to describe. We really didn't expect her to make the Olympic team this year, and she didn't expect it either," said Ashley's father, Mark Caldwell, a real estate developer and former Clemson football player. "But as the season progressed with her first three World Cup competitions, she made the finals in two of the those and got that fourth and last spot on the (Olympic) team. It's been a surprise, and a very good surprise."

The original target was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.

Four years ahead of schedule, the Caldwells and Ashley's three younger siblings -- Lyndsey, Jordan and Jack -- leave today for Vancouver. Preliminary aerial freestyle events are Saturday, with a medal round Feb. 24.

Ashley began skiing at age 3, traveling with her parents to such resorts as Vail, Colo., and Park City, Utah.

"She's always been really hard-working, and she's the consummate overachiever," said Mark Caldwell, 50. "She was a Junior Olympic gymnast but, frankly, got too big for gymnastics. She was looking for something else to do. Aerial skiing is a combination of skiing and gymnastics and I think was just a perfect fit for her."

Intrigued by the relatively new sport, Ashley gave Lake Placid a try at 13. She immediately out-jumped some of the best U.S. aerial skiers on a water ramps course.

It was par for a precocious, driven kid.

"I have always called her my 'old soul,' " Leslie Caldwell said. "She was trying to tell me what to do when she was 4. She could always see a better way to do things."

Ashley has graduated from high school via an online program and already has started toward an online college degree.

"She really can't go to a traditional brick-and-mortar school because of her training schedule and where she has to compete," Mark Caldwell said. "The travel is constant for about three or four months."

Mark Caldwell, a native of Asheville, N.C., was a reserve quarterback at Clemson. His most memorable football moment was the 1978 Gator Bowl when Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman toward the end of the Tigers' victory.

But nothing compares to the excitement at the U.S. Freestyle Nationals two years ago in Utah, he said. Ashley finished fourth to cap her first competitive season.

"I couldn't believe she had done so well," Mark Caldwell said. "It wasn't that she had finished fourth, but just that she jumped so well and edged out two girls already on the U.S. Ski Team."

Sure, Ashley's mom has mixed feelings at times.

"This has all happened in less than three years," Leslie Caldwell said. "Ashley had just been accepted to a prestigious math and science academy in Northern Virginia. We agonized about her leaving to train. It meant sending our daughter away from home five years before we were ready."

Finally, Ashley made the call.

"If I don't do this," she said, "we will always wonder, 'What if?' "

So here comes the ultimate family ski trip.

"I'm nervous and anxious and very proud," Mark Caldwell said. "I don't think anyone expects her to really compete for a medal. She'll compete as hard as she can, but right now she just lacks the degree of difficulty it takes to win. We're just proud she's there and getting the whole Olympic experience. She understands at the next Olympics she'll be expected to win."

Snow blanketed Daniel Island last weekend. Frosty pluff mud all around. Still, family talk of their favorite Olympic skier got the same reaction, Leslie Caldwell said.

"People say, 'You guys must not be from here.' "

Ashley Caldwell

HOMETOWN: Hamilton, Va.

AGE: 16, the youngest members of U.S. Winter Olympic Team.

FAMILY: Parents, Mark and Leslie Caldwell; sisters, Lyndsey (15), Jordan (12), and brother Jack (4).

EVENT: Freestyle skiing (aerials).

SCHEDULE: Preliminaries on Saturday, medal round Feb. 24.

QUOTE: "Everyone in our family skis," Mark Caldwell said, "but not to the degree Ashley does. Of course, not too many people do, I guess."