After the music stopped and the program was over, Jean-Luc Baker, down on one knee, gave a smile and a small fist pump before turning his head toward his partner Kaitlin Hawayek, who had her face buried in her hands in an expression of pure joy.
Baker, a native of Edmonds, and Hawayek had just completed their free dance in the ice dancing competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and the crowd at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, was on its feet in appreciation.
“I looked at (Hawayek) when we were bowing and thought, ‘This is why we’re doing this,’” Baker said in a phone interview from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he and Hawayek are based. “The whole arena was on its feet and everyone was as invested as we were. It was so thrilling to prove to ourselves that no matter what one experience does to you, you can still overcome.”
Not only did the moment serve as redemption from a year earlier, it also served as a possible pointer to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
Baker and Hawayek finished fourth at nationals, which concluded Jan. 7. The fourth-place finish matched the pair’s best-ever finish at nationals, which they also accomplished in 2015. They set personal bests in both the short dance (73.18) and free dance (114.43), as well as combined score (187.61). They are the U.S. team’s first alternate for the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics beginning Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea, behind the nation’s power pairings of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Maia and Alex Shibutani, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who are all considered medal hopefuls.
And after exorcising some demons in their free skate, they just may be the future of American ice dancing.
The 24-year-old Baker, a 2012 graduate of Kamiak High School, and the 21-year-old Hawayek, who hails from East Aurora, New York, first became a team in 2012. They immediately found success together, going on to win the gold medal at the 2014 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. During their six years together they’ve formed a close-knit bond that’s allowed them to deal with the challenges that come from competing at the highest level.
“Jean-Luc is awesome,” Hawayek said when asked why their partnership has worked. “He’s my best friend, we just have a mutual respect with each other that allows us to train so well together. Everyone has ups and downs in training and we support each other through them, we encourage each other and motivate each other. It’s cliche, but I do think we have a unique partnership. We like to have fun and enjoy each other’s company on the ice, and I think it shows when we skate.”
But 2017 nationals proved to be a stumbling block for Baker and Hawayek. During their free skate, performed to Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum,” the pair fell twice, something rarely seen in elite ice dancing. Hawayek lost her balance during a twizzle sequence, in which the pair twirl in unison on one foot, then Baker toppled while attempting a lift. They finished a disappointing fifth.
But instead of throwing their program in the trash bin following the disastrous performance, Baker and Hawayek decided to take a different approach.
“The morning after our free dance someone suggested we keep it for another year,” Baker said. “It’s a great vehicle, it being an Olympic year, and we’d only skated it once to its potential, we never fully grew into it. As soon as I heard the suggestion my gut instinct was that it sounded like the right move.”
But when it came time to perform the program for a second time at nationals, that’s when the pressure hit full-force.
“I was terrified,” Baker admitted. “Every other time I’ve competed I’ve gotten a little nervous, but like most athletes I get excited. Going into the free dance all I could see was us competing last year. Throughout the program, in my mind I was seeing two feet ahead, seeing what happened last year, and it was terrifying. Going into the mistake spots I saw ourselves fall, but when we came out of it we were still vertical, and then we hit the end pose and I was ecstatic. Not so much about the performance, because the majority of the time we’ve been quite clean and consistent. But just because it was a hurdle for us.”
Baker and Hawayek followed up nationals by claiming the gold at last week’s Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taipei, Taiwan. Baker and Hawayek won by 10 points over a field that included pairs who will be competing at the Olympics.
It all serves as a springboard into the next Olympic cycle. Baker and Hawayek had no real shot at making this year’s Olympic team, as U.S. Figure Skating had the final say who made the team, and the other three pairs were essentially locks. But 2022 in Beijing is a real possibility. The other three American pairs are all older, so it’s yet to be determined whether they’ll choose to continue competing for another four years. Meanwhile, this month’s results indicate Baker and Hawayek are a pair on the rise.
“I think we have a really good chance,” Baker said about reaching the 2022 Olympics. “The other three teams are phenomenal, but two of the teams have been to the Olympics twice, and for one of the guys it’s his third Olympics. I’ve heard rumors that all three would like to stay, but it’s a rigorous amount of training and there’s only so much the body can take.”
Prior to that Baker is hoping to get a chance to compete at home, as 2018 Skate America is in October at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. Selection for Skate America, which is part of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating that features the best skaters from around the world, takes place in June.
And now that he and Hawayek have overcome their free-dance roadblock, they’re hoping the rest of their path leads straight to the Olympics.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, e-mail Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.