Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlin Hawayek perform their routine in the ice dance competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 14, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlin Hawayek perform their routine in the ice dance competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 14, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Herald’s 2021-22 Man of the Year in Sports: Jean-Luc Baker

Born with clubfoot and unlikely to play sports, the Kamiak grad reached the pinnacle of athletics at the Winter Olympics.

When Jean-Luc Baker was born, the doctor informed his parents that he would never play sports.

Baker was born with clubfoot. His left foot was turned almost 180 degrees and folded under his leg. The Bakers were told Jean-Luc would have to wear a brace on his foot his whole life.

And yet, 28 years later, Baker found himself competing on the sports world’s grandest stage.

The Kamiak High School graduate realized his Olympic dreams when he represented the United States in ice dancing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, for which he was named The Herald’s 2021-22 Man of the Year in Sports.

Baker and his partner, Kaitlin Hawayek, overcame an adversity-filled 2021-22 season to take bronze at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January in Nashville, earning one of the nation’s three berths to the Olympics. They went on to finish 11th at the Olympics, with the ebullient Baker enjoying himself the entire time, despite the restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I lived every single second of the Olympic experience,” said Baker, who could often be seen on television coverage dancing and cheering in the stands for his U.S. teammates. “I was so engulfed in it, meeting all the athletes and being surrounded by so many amazing people who were striving for the same thing, which is excellence. It was a surreal experience.”

On the surface, Baker’s story is one of someone destined to be an Olympic skater. He was born in Burnley, England, as the son of competitive skaters: His mother, Sharon, represented Great Britain in ice dancing at the 1988 Olympics, while his father, Stephen, competed for the Brits in pairs skating. The family moved from England to Edmonds in 1997 as the Bakers were hired as coaches at the Mountlake Terrace-based Seattle Skating Club, where they remain coaches to this day. Baker was on the ice before he was 2 and was in skating classes by the time he was 5.

And yet, because of his clubfoot, Baker didn’t seem destined to ever wear skates.

“There was a young doctor in the hospital who was straight out of med school,” Stephen Baker remembered. “He said there was something he wanted to try that didn’t involve surgery.”

So for the first four months of his life Baker was taken to the hospital on a weekly basis to have his foot put in a strap to try and straighten it. After those four months his leg was put in a cast for another four months. When the cast was removed, Baker’s foot was pointing in the right direction. There are still dissimilarities between his feet, including his left foot being a size-and-a-half smaller than his right foot. But he’s otherwise been unaffected by being born with clubfoot.

However, skating remained an unlikely path. Despite being fully active, Baker wasn’t interested in skating. His parents didn’t push him toward the sport, and he chose instead to focus on taekwondo until, when he was 7, he was brought onto the ice during a local ice show to serve as a prop.

“We volunteered Jean-Luc to sit on a car, he didn’t even have skates on,” Stephen Baker said. “He just loved the spotlight so much that he wanted to start skating again.”

So Baker began competing. Being a showman, he was naturally drawn to ice dancing rather than freestyle skating. As a kid he competed solo and did performances to themes, such as when he danced an exercise routine based on Richard Simmons. Upon graduating from Kamiak in 2012 he flew the next morning to Detroit to ramp up his training, which is when he teamed up with Hawayek. The duo won gold at the World Junior Championships in 2014 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and have since become regulars on the international circuit, claiming four national bronze medals, placing in the top 10 at four World Championships, and winning gold at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating when they claimed the NHK Trophy in 2018 in Japan.

As the U.S.’s well-established No. 3 duo going into the 2021-22 season, Hawayek and Baker seemed a lock to earn an Olympic berth. However, Hawayek suffered a concussion during training last July, setting their preparations back months. They’d barely competed by the time nationals came along, and after a slight slip during the rhythm dance they found themselves in fourth place, just behind the duo of Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, who had emerged as legitimate Olympic contenders during the season. However, an immaculate performance during their free dance allowed Hawayek and Baker to leap back into third and earn the Olympic berth.

Hawayek and Baker skated two clean performances in Beijing en route to their 11th-place finish at the Olympics.

“It was great,” Baker said about their performances. “We honestly did everything we could. We didn’t go in with a specific placement in mind, it was about being an Olympian. When we competed at the World Championships (placement) was a higher priority, but it was such a big honor to be part of Team USA and walk in the opening ceremonies. The difference between eighth and 11th doesn’t change anything, being a part of it all is what was special.”

Will Hawayek and Baker go for another Olympics when the 2026 games take place in Milan? With Baker being 28 and Hawayek 25 they have the right age profile, and with the U.S. duo of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue retiring they move up a spot in the national hierarchy. But four years is a long time in elite athletics.

“We’re not closed to the idea of it,” Baker said. “Last year threw a lot of curveballs at us, so we’re taking it year by year and just trying to stay in the moment.”

But wherever his journey takes him in the coming years, Baker will always be able to call himself an Olympian.

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