Article by Jacquelyn Thayer | Photos by Liz Chastney & Katie Weigel
After kicking off their season with a successful Junior Grand Prix series, 2013 U.S. junior national silver medalists Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker had one unexpected excitement – seeing two-time World and Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir’s new Olympic free dance feature a curve lift variation employed in the younger team’s own Amélie-scored free dance this season.
“We feel as though with them also doing the lift, people will understand the difficulty of it,” agree the partners, calling the coincidence “neat.” “It shows that it’s not an easy lift to do, as the 2010 Olympic champions perform it as well.”
Though only in their second year together, Hawayek & Baker have made an impressive statement on the international stage. In addition to winning gold at both JGP Mexico Cup and JGP Baltic Cup in Gdansk, Poland, they set an ISU season’s best among all juniors with 62.58 points for their short dance in Gdansk, and by virtue of their victories, qualified for their first appearance at the Junior Grand Prix Final.
“I think sometimes we forget how new of a team we still are compared to our seasoned competitors,” Hawayek said. “For only skating together a year and a half now, I think we can both agree that the progress we have made as a team is immense.”
“I think our progress as a team thus far is wonderful,” Baker agreed. “I’m extremely happy with where we are set up and have grown together. This season we worked very hard on our speed and our transitions and to show the judges and audience our connection that we have with one another.”
Looking ahead to the JGP Final in Fukuoka, Japan, both partners emphasize their efforts towards further building both their short dance – set to standards “Happy Feet,” “It Had to Be You” and “Sing Sing Sing” – and free dance, as well as continuing to grow as skaters.
“While drilling our technique and working for consistency with our elements,” Hawayek said, “we also aim to develop the story of our programs and show a deeper connection.”
In addition to a goal to continue their JGP success with a medal at the Final this week, the team also aims to medal at March’s World Junior Championships.
“We are very pleased that the hard work in the off-season and summer has paid off, but now we know we need to continue with the work,” Baker said.
One of the key factors to which Hawayek & Baker attribute their quick success is the work of their coaching team at the Detroit Skating Club, led by Anjelika Krylova, Pasquale Camerlengo and Massimo Scali.
“I would have to say since I’ve only been living here just over a year, I love it,” Baker said. He previously trained in Seattle under the tutelage of his parents, but calls the move to Michigan the “best decision” of his career to date. “Training with all the other amazing skaters is truly inspiring. There is very rarely a day when you come into the rink and you have a tough time getting motivated.”
And Hawayek, who has trained at the DSC for four years, concurs. “Every skater, whether ice dance, singles, or pairs, supports one another and constantly pushes one another to work harder and strive to be even better,” she said. “It is quite an incredible environment that I truly believe people cannot find at other rinks. We are fortunate to have a team of five incredible coaches [also including Natalia Annenko-Deller and Elizabeth Swallow] who each bring out aspects to our skating to make our programs a complete package.”
Training alongside several elite senior ice dance couples, including Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue, and Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam, has served as its own inspiration for the young team.
“We feel the push and drive from the senior teams, with it being the Olympic season, and try to use their energy to our advantage,” Baker said. “Being around those teams all day, you see what it takes to be the best. Although we are juniors, we still try to consider ourselves as one of the senior teams when it comes to the training. They push themselves physically every day and don’t hold back, which you cannot do at either level.”
Hawayek highlights an additional benefit to the training environment. “Being around so many incredibly talented senior teams has not only pushed us to work hard every day at the rink,” she said, “but also to develop a maturity to our skating that most junior teams lack. At some point in our careers, we will move to the senior level and when that time comes, I believe that training with all of the talented senior teams at our rink will help us make that transition from junior to senior successful.”
That focus on maturity of skating is also evident in the team’s goals for their own developing style.
“We both agree people often forget we are doing ‘ice dance’ and a lot of the teams nowadays just skate together and show feats of strength,” Baker said. “We try our hardest with bringing back one of the main aspects of ice dance and showing the relationship and connection between one another.”
“Both Jean-Luc and I think it is incredibly important to maintain the artistic aspect to skating while continually pushing the boundaries technically and athletically,” Hawayek continued. “We have an incredible respect for one another and thus far have been able to train to our maximum ability while enjoying every minute on the ice together. We strive to bring a passion for skating into our programs and show the audience how much we love being on the ice and skating together.”
The two point to a few key sources of inspiration as they develop their image as a team.
“I always find that Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean are one of the teams I always come back to for inspiration,” Baker said. “The way they move as one across the ice is just seamless. I also love the top two teams – [Meryl] Davis & [Charlie] White and Virtue & Moir – and of course Kurt Browning. I find all of their skating to just be effortless.”
Hawayek is equally inspired by the reigning Olympic and World champion teams. “They have both throughout their careers developed unique and very different styles as a team which I admire equally,” she said. “I admire Davis & White’s athleticism and incredible technical strength and consistency and I admire the passion and connection that Virtue & Moir continually show from year to year in every program. In addition, I am inspired by my training mates Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje for their incredible determination and work ethic that inspires Jean-Luc and I to work harder and push ourselves to be better every day.”
While Hawayek & Baker draw from both past greats and the elite coaches and teams around them now, their earliest on-ice influences were closer to home.
“I got involved in ice dance because of my mother, Sharon Jones Baker,” Baker said. “She went to the ’88 Olympics in Calgary for ice dance [competing for Great Britain] and since I was so expressive, I figured I should give it a try.”
“Skating has always been part of my life and my family has spent many hours at the ice rink,” Hawayek said. “My mother, who was a figure skater, had me and both my brothers learn to skate and we all fell in love with being on the ice – both of my brothers are hockey players. At the beginning of my skating career, I started with freestyle, but I always appreciated the artistic element to skating, and my first coach encouraged me to pursue that through ice dancing.”
And Baker offers one further basis for a shift from the singles realm to dance: “Another reason is because when I would skate singles, I would just make up my own programs during competition instead of the set one, so [my mother] figured with someone else there, I can’t really do that,” he said.
The partnership has provided its own contributions to their enjoyment of ice dance, with their ease on the ice reflected off the ice as well.
“Jean-Luc continually makes skating fun,” Hawayek said. “He is incredibly driven and hard-working and yet unlike many skaters who get lost in the pressure of training and competing, he focuses on bringing a positive, calm environment to the rink each day.”
Baker is equally laudatory. “She is an amazing friend and partner and has an ability to be serious about our training but still make it so we have a good time,” he said, while also singling out the baking and cooking skills of Hawayek and her mother, Kirstin.
In considering broader goals for the future off the ice, the team also shares a few interests of a scientific bent.
“I really enjoy working out and learning about the body,” Baker said. “I am currently holding off on schooling until later in my career or until I am finished skating. I would love to become a coach and choreographer, but alongside those also be a personal trainer. I find the way the body can work fascinating. Becoming a personal trainer would allow me to stay active after skating.”
Hawayek, meanwhile, notes a keen inclination towards neuroscience and neurosurgery. “I find it fascinating to think that there is something so complex that controls our entire functionality as a body in such a small area,” she said. “I hope to one day go into a field related to neuroscience and potentially become a brain surgeon. For now though, I am looking forward to taking some classes at a local university.”
But for the time being, Hawayek & Baker’s focus centers on the ice.
“Long term, Jean-Luc and I are looking to develop a unique style to our skating and continually improve in all aspects of our skating from season to season,” Hawayek said. “In the upcoming years we will be focused on making a successful transition from the junior level to the senior level, in hopes of becoming a competitive senior international team for Team USA.”
“Our development as a team is something that is an everyday thing, I think since we are still considered a new team,” Baker said. “We believe that our growth is just a togetherness which will excel further in time.”