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Ice dancers Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-luc Baker on the cusp of their first Olympics

Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlin Hawayek perform at the 2021 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Courtesy)
Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlin Hawayek perform at the 2021 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Courtesy)

Olympic ice dancing partners Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlin Hawayek know each other’s every move.

Ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing that starts later this week, the pair is feeling a sense of honor and accomplishment — but also a bit stressed about traveling to China without getting COVID-19, Hawayek says.

The duo has taken multiple tests and followed protocol to get into China and the Olympic Village, Baker says. And now, all that’s left to do is board the flight.

“There’s a lot of things that are out of our control with this one,” he says, “and that’s the scarier part, I find.”

For Hawayek, the COVID stress brings a “balance” that keeps the Olympians from solely focusing on the competition.

“I never expected to have, let’s say, a distraction that actually took up a large portion of energy,” she says, “compared to tunnel-vision focusing on our craft and our sport.”

Hawayek describes ice dancing as a cross between figure skating, dancing and acting — a performing art combined with an athletic sport. The craft requires skaters to flow across the ice with smooth movement, she says.

“It’s also about the relationship between the guy and the girl on the ice,” she says. “Ice dancing to me, that’s why I was drawn into it so much: It captures a beautiful storytelling ability.”

At a young age, Baker loved performing and being the center of attention. In freestyle competitions, he would do a couple of jumps and improvise for the rest of the time — which didn’t resonate with judges.

His coaches and parents, skaters Sharon Jones Baker and Stephen Baker, told him something needed to change if he wanted to compete.

As opposed to pair skating, ice dancers stay grounded on the ice for most of the routine and perform a few lifts, rather than doing side-by-side jumps, he says.

“I find that it is actually very physical and very technically hard what we do,” Baker says. “It’s not to the naked eye in a way that our job on the ice is to try to make it look as effortless as possible.”

The essence of ice dance, he says, is the connection between the skaters and their ability to perform emotion.

When Baker was born, one doctor said he wouldn’t be able to walk because he had a clubfoot. He wore a cast for the first six to eight months of his life, then he transitioned to special shoes for a few years so his parents could do exercises for him.

As he moves forward in his career, Baker says he’s needed to increase his awareness of how to manage it: His right foot is a size 9, while his left foot is a 7.5. But he doesn’t think it affects his skating.

“I don’t think that it is something that has ever put a hold on my career at all. I just have to be aware of essentially like the physical therapy side of things,” he says. “And I actually think that if anything, it’s even stronger than the other foot at this point.”

To maintain strong chemistry, Baker and Hawayek work with a sports psychologist who refers to the different components of their partnership as their “pies” — physical, intellectual, emotional and social energies.

Over the last decade, the duo has worked on learning how to match one another’s energy, Baker says. He finds that matching Hawayek’s physical energy is the easiest part because of their synchronized training plans.

“Ultimately, we periodize our physical training to be kind of peaking at the same point,” he says. “But the emotional connection and that relationship is something that I think was the most effortful part of growing our partnership.”

It’s similar to any other kind of relationship, Hawayek says.

At first, they tip-toed around each other. But now, both skaters have learned to vocalize their feelings as they come up rather than letting emotions fester, she says. And a sense of mutual trust helps the duo train with a strong foundation.

“We’re seeing each other every single day, every kind of wave of life we’ve experienced together,” she says. “So the biggest part for us has just been learning to communicate.”

On top of everything that goes into their performance outside the rink, ice dancers train for three to four hours per day, five days a week all for a four-minute performance, Baker says. When the pair qualified for the games in Nashville, he almost started laughing at the end of the long-awaited routine.

“To have it all come together when you need it to,” he says, “it’s a surreal moment.”

Baker and Hawayek are set to compete in Beijing on Feb. 12 and 14. Hawayek says she’s excited to cheer on their teammates in the individual event — but beyond that, it all comes down to the judges.

“The beauty of this experience is that we have no prior experience, so we have no assumptions or expectations for what to expect when we’re there,” she says. “We’re just going to go out and put out the best performances that we can and let the results be up to whatever the judges decide.”


Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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