Jean-Luc Baker used precise language to describe his status as an Olympic athlete.
“Once I’m there (in Beijing) I’ll feel comfortable with calling myself an Olympian,” the ice dancer from Edmonds said. “Until that point I’m just an Olympic team member.”
Sean Beighton had pointed words to express how the wait between now and the start of the Winter Olympics feels.
“It’s scary, really scary,” the curling coach who’s also from Edmonds said. “It’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen.”
Under normal circumstances, Baker and Beighton would be spending this time eagerly preparing to represent both Snohomish County and the United States on the world’s biggest sporting stage, as both have qualified for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which officially kick off Feb. 4 in Beijing.
However, in the new normal of the coronavirus pandemic, the next three weeks are less about fine-tuning routines or working on in-turn takeouts, and more about staying healthy. When one positive test for COVID-19 can end a dream, evading the virus becomes the No. 1 priority.
The omicron variant has led to a massive surge in cases worldwide, particularly in U.S., thus raising the risk factor above where it was for the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics, which took place last summer in Tokyo.
Therefore, the most nerve-wracking period of the Olympic process for Baker and Beighton wasn’t qualifying for the games and won’t be competing at them. It’s now.
Baker, a 2012 graduate of Kamiak High School, and his partner Kaitlin Hawayek were chosen by U.S. Figure Skating as one of the country’s three ice-dancing pairs for the Olympics last Sunday after finishing third at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville.
Hawayek and Baker are currently scheduled to fly out Feb. 1 so they can be there in time to participate in opening ceremonies on Feb. 4, and they are scheduled to compete on Feb. 12 and 14.
“Right now the main focus is staying as healthy as possible so I can get there,” Baker said.
“We’re bubbling ourselves as much as possible, getting all our things delivered,” Baker added. “In our on-ice work we’re fine-tuning some details, getting more speed and more flow in our performances. But, at the end of the day, the attribute that could be the big stopping point is COVID. You can’t test positive, even before the flight. There’s no leeway within the testing period, and if you test positive then you’re not going to be an Olympian. It’s one of those things where yes, we’re on the Olympic team, but until we step on the Olympic ice I’m being cautious with the language I use.”
Beighton, a 2007 Kamiak graduate who coaches both Team Shuster in men’s curling and the duo of Chris Plys and Vicky Persinger in mixed doubles, earned his Olympic double-dip when the men’s team won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in November in Omaha, Nebraska, and the mixed-doubles team won an Olympic qualifying event in December in Leeuwarden, Netherlands.
Beighton is scheduled to fly out on Jan. 27 because mixed-doubles curling starts Feb. 2, which is two days before opening ceremonies. The men’s gold-medal match is on Feb. 19, so in theory he’ll be there for the duration.
“We’ve all been in hiding, basically,” Beighton said.
“We’re lucky because we had a case study,” Beighton added. “They held a tournament in Eveleth, Minnesota, in the middle of December, and every athlete had to come in with a negative COVID test. Teams were flying in from all over the country to use it as a prep event, and out of about 140 athletes 20 got COVID as a result of going to this event. It was a huge wake-up call. We realized as a team we can’t really be doing anything in public, we can’t be having scrimmages against other teams for the next month before we leave.”
As a result, the players have all been practicing on their own, and only when the rinks are empty. So there’s been no team-based training taking place in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
“It’s hard for us,” Beighton said. “But it’s way more valuable to not get sick than it is to get practice against other teams and then get sick.”
Such is life for an Olympic athlete in 2022.