Everything came down to one moment for Jean-Luc Baker.
Seven months of adversity, as fate put a substantial roadblock in Baker’s and ice dancing partner Kaitlin Hawayek’s path at just the wrong moment.
Four years of blood, sweat and tears, all directed toward the singular goal of making it to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
And a lifetime of inspiration, including tales told by his mother Sharon Jones Baker about competing in ice dancing for Great Britain at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, as well as watching American ice dancing greats such as Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
All of it came down to four minutes. That’s when Hawayek and Baker produced the most clutch performance of their decade-long partnership.
The duo delivered just when it mattered most, and as a result Baker finds himself in Beijing getting ready to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
Hawayek and Baker compete this weekend at the Olympics, with the rhythm dance scheduled for Saturday and the free dance set for Monday — it translates to early Saturday morning and Sunday evening Pacific Time.
And Baker, a 28-year-old Edmonds native and 2012 Kamiak High School graduate, couldn’t be happier about getting the opportunity to live out his childhood dream.
“I’ve been skating with Kaitlin for 10 years now, and the moment we got together this was the dream and the goal,” Baker said via phone from Montreal, where he’s now based, prior to leaving for Beijing. “Every step we’ve taken and decision we’ve made has been to get to this point. At a very young age my mom would tell me stories of how she competed in the Olympics, and those put me in awe. Being a part of Team USA and representing our country on the world’s biggest state is just such an honor.”
But getting there was anything but straightforward, particularly since last summer.
Baker and Hawayek looked like locks to make the U.S. Olympic team. The U.S. was allotted three berths in ice dancing, and Baker and Hawayek were bronze medalists at nationals each of the previous three years. Therefore, with U.S. Figure Skating having discretion to select the three representatives, only disaster could prevent Baker and Hawayek from being one of the duos picked to go to Beijing, alongside power pairs Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
But disaster is what happened last July, when Hawayek suffered a concussion during training. The injury prevented Hawayek from being able to train in full for nearly two months. The duo was forced to withdraw from its early-season events. By the time the U.S. Figure Skating Championships arrived in January in Nashville, Hawayek and Baker had competed just twice. Suddenly the tickets to Beijing were no longer tucked into their pockets.
The task became even more daunting at nationals. While Hawayek and Baker were withdrawing from events, the U.S. duo of Caroline Green and Michael Parsons was emerging on the international stage and posting solid scores, thus posing a threat to Hawayek’s and Baker’s position. Then a stumble during a twizzle sequence in the rhythm dance left Hawayek and Baker in fourth place heading into the free dance, a smidgen behind Green and Parsons. Given the way the season had played out, conventional wisdom suggested the team that finished ahead at nationals would be picked for the third Olympic berth.
That was the weight placed on Hawayek’s and Baker’s shoulders as they took the ice for their free dance.
“We knew we had to deliver,” Baker said. “It was very terrifying, but it was exciting knowing this was it. The culmination of 10 years of work and 24 years of skating for me was coming down to this performance. I would be lying if I said my hands weren’t shaking at the beginning.”
Hawayek and Baker responded with the performance of their lives. Skating an ethereal routine to piano music from romantic-period composer Frederic Chopin, Hawayek and Baker entered what Baker described as the flow state, performing flawlessly. When the music stopped and they struck their final pose, Hawayek broke down in tears and the two embraced in a long hug at center ice.
“When we finished I was in a place of pure bliss, where I couldn’t help but laugh because we did that,” Baker said. “It was a similar reaction to getting off a roller coaster, where you’re terrified to get on, but afterwards you’re laughing and screaming with your friends because you have so much adrenaline.”
But the drama wasn’t over yet. They still had to wait for Green and Parsons to skate. Even after Green and Parsons received their scores, revealing that Hawayek and Baker had jumped ahead of them into third place, they still had to wait for U.S. figure Skating to make their final decision.
“Honestly, I was feeling phenomenal,” Baker said about the wait. “I knew at the depth of my heart that we had done every single thing we could to perform to our greatest potential for that day. What was going to happen was going to happen, after that point it was out of our control. I’ve learned to control what I can control and be submissive to what I can’t. Selection was not in our control, the performance was, and we were satisfied with the performance. It would have hurt to not be named to the team, but we knew we did everything we could.”
Baker received the call late that night that they’d been selected, and he had to text the U.S. Figure Skating representative back to assure himself that it wasn’t a prank.
Now that Baker is in Beijing, it’s less about a placing and more about a performance.
“We’d love to strive toward being in the top 10,” Baker said. “We’re currently ninth in the world, so to be in the top 10 would be a great goal for us. But all-in-all we want to be present and enjoy the whole experience, and we want to connect with the audience members. Whether they’re there in person or watching on TV, if we get the audience to feel something — and there’s so much stress and uncertainty in these crazy times — if we’re able to be on the world’s biggest stage and connect with the audience and give them a break from their lives, we’d love to do that.”