American aerialists look back on Beijing after winning Olympic gold over China
Lillis, Schoenefeld and Caldwell defeated China on its home soil
PARK CITY, Utah — China was the gold-medal favorite heading into the inaugural mixed team aerials event at the 2022 Olympics on its home soil. Still, the American team of Chris Lillis, Justin Schoenefeld and Ashley Caldwell knew they had something special on their hands.
“All day and all week, Ashley kept saying, ‘We’re going to beat them in their own country, we’re going to beat them in their own country,’” Schoenefeld said.
Beating China, a team that won both mixed team aerials World Cup events leading up to the Games, would be difficult, but Caldwell knew the U.S. had what it took.
“China’s a dominant team, but I knew from the beginning that our team and China’s team, we had a higher degree of difficulty than they have,” Caldwell said. “I kind of knew that if we did what we knew we could do, we would annihilate them.”
Lillis landed a huge back double full-full-double full, which involves five twists and three flips, in the final round to score a flat 135 — the highest score in the event — and help the U.S. upset China for a gold medal.
“It just felt like we really executed the plan that we had for three years leading up to it,” Lillis said. “It’s kind of surreal to be on the other side of it now after the plan kind of worked out and we have an Olympic gold medal.”
Caldwell was the first to go in finals, and she pulled off a back full-full-full. Lillis then put the U.S. in the lead with his jump, so a clean run from Schoenefeld could seal the deal. Schoenefeld stomped a back double full-full-full that scored a 114.48, which was enough for the U.S. to win gold. After the event, the three were surprised to see headlines back home using phrases like “upset” or “underdogs.”
“I can’t believe that — honestly, we didn’t hear that until we got there because we were one of the better teams, I thought,” Schoenefeld said. “We all heard it and we were shocked. We’re the underdogs? I understand China’s won a lot of team events and World Cups and stuff, but it’s a different competition out there at the Olympics. So, anything can happen, and I guess the underdog can win if that’s what they call us.”
While none of the three are originally from Park City — or Utah, even — they have adopted Park City as their new home for training. For instance, Caldwell has lived in the area for a decade, while Lillis has been around for about seven.
Schoenefeld and Lillis were making their first Games appearances in Beijing, but Caldwell was on her fourth trip. The mixed team aerials gold was her first Olympic medal. Caldwell and Schoenefeld also became the rare couple to win a gold medal together, as they’ve been dating each other for several years now.
“I feel like it’s more intense than anything else we could do besides maybe have kids,” Caldwell said. “We’ll share this forever. … A couple that won a gold medal together, it’s got to be a very few amount of people.”
All three barely missed out on adding another medal in their individual events. Schoenefeld and Lillis both made the six-man final on the men’s side, but neither landed on the podium. Schoenefeld finished fifth, and Lillis came in sixth.
“Obviously, that’s a huge bummer because you don’t get many opportunities to take home Olympic medals,” Lillis said. “But I was proud of what I did in getting to that super-final round. That was fun and just felt a lot of confidence going forward in myself and what I’ll be able to do for this team.”
For Schoenefeld, it was agonizing coming up just short of another medal, but that gold medal earlier in the Games softened the blow at least a little bit.
“It was pretty upsetting not being able to land my super finals jump,” he said. “I got down to the bottom and I already had a gold medal around my neck. And that definitely made it a little bit easier accepting that I was off the podium, but it was right there.”
Caldwell came the closest of the three to an individual medal, but she couldn’t stick another back full-full-full in the final round. Caldwell finished fourth in the event, her best finish in an individual event in her four trips to the Games.
“I was on fire that day. I jumped some of my best jumps my whole career,” Caldwell said. “I could taste the gold, I was jumping so incredibly well. And I got unlucky with a gust of wind, and that’s part of our sport.”
Life after the Olympics has been a little different for all three athletes. There weren’t any World Cup events for aerials after the Games, and much of the focus for them now is getting some rest and processing the last couple of years before resuming training.
Lillis had the honor of winning a national title in March at Bristol Mountain, New York, which is not far from his hometown of Rochester. Both Lillis and Schoenefeld are 23 and are focused on giving it another go in four years.
“I love jumping, always have, and at this stage of my career, especially being 23, I just feel like I’m entering my prime,” Lillis said. “I’ve definitely accomplished some pretty cool things over the last four years and especially the last two. But I know that it’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of dedication to reach that same level again into the next Olympics.”
Schoenefeld, meanwhile, is spending more time in the air — this time as a pilot instead of flying on skis. He’s already earned his private pilot’s license and is heading back to school to work on his commercial rating.
“I’ve been out and about flying planes around and having a good time doing that in my free time,” Schoenefeld said. “It’s definitely been a great way to spend the afternoons after training.”
Caldwell’s also back in school, as she’s finishing up her second Master’s degree and figuring out life after aerials before resuming training.
“I’m kind of stepping in and dipping my toes in the water of what’s my next career path and trying to figure out what that is,” Caldwell said. “But also enjoying the summer and some of those extracurricular activities that I like doing, like mountain biking and sailing and surfing.”
The memories that Lillis, Caldwell and Schoenefeld share will last a lifetime, long after any disappointment about not winning an individual medal will dissipate. Lillis will never forget that feeling of clinching a gold medal.
“Just being able to share that experience with Justin and Ashley, who I’ve trained with my entire career, I’ll never forget that,” Lillis said. “I doubt I’ll have too many sports achievements that will rival it going forward.”
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