Jean-Luc Baker didn’t begin the 2018-19 international figure skating season with visions of career breakthroughs. He was just hoping to get past the headaches that forced he and his ice-dancing partner, Kaitlin Hawayek, into abbreviated preparations for the season’s first major event.
He ended up with both, and now the Edmonds native and his partner are set for another career milestone as they continue their ascent through the elite ice dancing world.
Baker and Hawayek are having it all in their breakthrough campaign, winning their first ever Grand Prix of Figure Skating event and qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final, which takes place this weekend in Vancouver, B.C.
“I think this has all been really cool for us,” Baker said in a phone interview from Montreal, where he and Hawayek are now based. “We’re really thrilled about going to the final and winning our first Grand Prix. We worked really hard for it, but so did all the other athletes. We’ve found that this is a really good time for us to excel forward and take advantage of a great opportunity.”
Baker, a graduate of Kamiak High School who turned 25 in October, and Hawayek, a native of East Aurora, New York, made their breakthrough by winning the gold medal at the NHK Trophy, the fourth of the International Skating Union’s six Grand Prix of Figure Skating events this season, on Nov. 9-11 in Hiroshima, Japan. It was the duo’s first Grand Prix gold medal and bested their previous best, when they took bronze at the same event in 2014.
Baker and Hawayek followed up by placing fourth at the Internationaux de France on Nov. 23-25 in Grenoble, France. The two results gave Baker and Hawayek enough points to finish in the top six in Grand Prix points and qualify for the final. It is the first time Baker and Hawayek qualified for the final.
“We were very happy,” Baker said of winning gold in Japan. “It was our first event of the season, we had a late start as we didn’t do any summer events or early season events in September or October. We were interested to see how things were going to go, but we were also very excited. I was thrilled with the performances we put out and thought it was a great start to the season.”
The reason for the delayed start was because Baker suffered a concussion in August when he hit the back of his head on the ice during training. Baker wasn’t back to full strength until October, and the pair had to put off any warm-up events.
“September was a struggle,” Baker admitted. “But it was really important that our return was intelligent, because this is the start of a four-year plan and that was more important than winning (the NHK Trophy).”
Indeed, Baker and Hawayek underwent big changes this offseason as they set up their preparations for reaching the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. Baker and Hawayek were the No. 4 U.S. ice dancing team last season, behind the power trio of Madison Hubbell and Evan Donohue, Maia and Alex Shubitani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates. As a result, Baker and Hawayek just missed out on a spot at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PeyongChang, South Korea.
So to increase their chances at Beijing, Baker and Hawayek changed coaches and moved from Detroit to Montreal, where they are now working with the renown duo of Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon at the Gadbois Centre. Dubreuil and Lauzon are the premier ice dancing coaches in the world. Among their wards are three-time Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, and American pairs Hubbell and Donohue and Chock and Bates.
“We made the decision based on a couple factors,” Hawayek said. “Both of us felt we needed a training environment where there were a lot of top teams training for similar competitions, which would give us that extra edge because we’d know where our competitors were at and would push ourselves hard in training. Also, one of our previous coaches in Detroit, Angelika Krylova, decided to move back to Russia, and without her we didn’t feel it was the full team we wanted.”
“It’s absolutely phenomenal being on the ice with these teams every day,” Baker added “We have some of the best skaters in the world with us every single day. We’re competing with each other, but we’re also a tight-knit family, we genuinely care about each person on the ice. That’s the camp’s strength, we all push each other physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
With the coaching change has also come new routines and a different style. This year’s rhythm dance is a tango, a style Baker and Hawayek had never danced to before, so that was a learning process. They’re also developing an edge that their skating they didn’t have in the past.
“The difference from previous programs is that there’s a little more abandon and freedom than previous programs we’ve had,” Hawayek said. “It’s not the right word because it doesn’t sound right, but in a way we’re skating more recklessly. We’re pushing our skating from previous seasons. Last season’s free dance was beautiful and delicate, but everything was pristine, there were no rough edges. We enjoy the way these programs push the boundaries a little more.”
Baker in particular also enjoys the fact that this weekend’s final is like a homecoming, considering it’s taking place a 90-minute drive away from home at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in Vancouver.
“That is so cool that our first Grand Prix Final is so close to home for me,” Baker said. “My parents and our families will be there, and I’ve heard a lot of people from the local skating clubs are coming up, so we’ll have a good audience backing us.”
Backing them for what they hope is their next step toward Beijing.
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