Ice dancer Baker eyes ultimate prize

  • By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
  • Monday, February 3, 2014 7:48pm
  • SportsSports

Because his parents were both figure skaters, it made sense that Jean-Luc Baker would try the sport, too. So one day his dad fitted the boy’s feet with a pair of skates and led him onto the ice.

Jean-Luc Baker was 2 years old.

In later years, and with both parents coaching, he kept coming back. “I guess I spent all the quarters they gave me for video games,” he said, “so they put me on the ice again. And I kind of liked it.

“I don’t think I really loved it until I was 10 or 11. But I’ve been loving it ever since.”

Jean-Luc Baker, who grew up in Edmonds and is a 2012 graduate of Mukilteo’s Kamiak High School, will not be in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics next month. But he certainly has the potential to skate in a future Games, having won the United States national championship in junior ice dance with partner Kaitlin Hawayek earlier this month.

The national juniors title for Baker and Hawayek follows a runner-up finish at nationals a year ago, two junior Grand Prix victories last fall and a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final in December.

Top showings as juniors are no guarantee of similar success at the senior level, of course, but it is a great place to start. The U.S. ice dance tandem of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, considered the favorites for gold in Sochi, had similar results as juniors back in the mid-2000s.

And like everyone else in figure skating, Baker says an Olympic medal — perhaps even a gold medal — is the ultimate prize.

“I know the potential that both Kaitlin and I have as skaters, and we definitely have the potential to be Olympians in 2018,” Baker said. “We’re really pushing for that. We’re still taking it one season at a time, but in the long term we both want to be Olympians.”

Baker was born in Great Britain, where parents Steve Baker and Sharon Jones Baker had been international figure skaters, but the family moved to the United States when he was 4. As he progressed in skating he settled into ice dancing, and in 2006 he began competing with Joylyn Yang of Mukilteo. They won national titles in juvenile (2006-07) and intermediate (2007-08), and then placed seventh and third at nationals as novices the next two years, followed by a sixth-place finish as juniors in 2010-11.

Unfortunately, Yang was forced out of competitive skating by a back injury, so the U.S. Figure Skating Association suggested that Baker partner with Hawayek, a native of East Aurora, N.Y.

“Kaitlin and I are really good friends,” Baker said. “People often think we’re going out, but we’re not. We’re just really close friends. We consider each other as best friends, and we’d do anything for each other outside of skating as well as with skating.”

“I think the strong point of our partnership and the key to our success this far is our mutual admiration and respect for each other,” said the 17-year-old Hawayek. “We really get along all the time. We never argue, and we always respect each other’s opinions and ideas. I consider him one of my closest friends.”

The day after his high school graduation, Baker moved to Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to begin training with Hawayek at the Detroit Skating Club, one of the premier centers for elite figure skaters in North America. Several Olympians train in Detroit, including four-time U.S. national champion and 2014 Olympic contender Jeremy Abbott.

Baker and Hawayek work with five coaches, all of them former Olympians — Angelika Krylova (Russia), Pasquale Camerlengo (Italy), Massimo Scali (Italy), Natalia Deller (Russia) and Liz Punsalan Swallow (U.S.) — and they spend six days a week on the ice, usually for 3-31/2 hours a day.

“It’s very, very intense, and it’s the perfect environment to maximize the most out of our training,” Baker said. “It’s kind of like a full-time job for us. There are long days, but they don’t really feel long because I love what I’m doing.”

Since they are not yet Olympians, Baker and Hawayek are training for the junior world championships in March in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Already in his young life, Baker has seen more of the world than most people will. He has competed around the United States, and has also been to Japan (twice), Germany, Mexico, Poland and Turkey.

“I love it,” he said. “I’ve had to sacrifice for skating. I left all my friends and my life back in Washington, but the experiences I’ve had have been unbelievable. It’s been well worth the sacrifices.”

In the years ahead, Baker and Hawayek hope to continue traveling as they pursue their shared Olympic dream.

“As kids we all say, ‘I want to go to the Olympics someday,’ and it’s really incredible based on our careers so far to think it could actually come true,” Hawayek said. “Four years is a long ways away, but to think that’s a possibility for us is very exciting.”

The enormity of the journey is sometimes scary, Baker admitted, “but if your dreams don’t scare you then they’re not big enough, that’s what I always say. And if you’re not dreaming (about the Olympics), then you’re not doing the right thing. You have to be hungry in this sport. Yes, it’s figure skating, but it’s still pretty fierce. And I obviously want to be the best with Kaitlin.

“So I’m definitely thinking about things like that all the time, and in a positive way,” he said. “It’s a driving force for me. Because to go to the Olympics for Team USA would just be amazing.”

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