By Maura Sullivan Hill | Photo by Robin Ritoss

When American ice dancer Jean-Luc Baker suffered a concussion during preseason training in August, his season with partner Kaitlin Hawayek could easily have gone off the rails. They lost training time and weren’t able to compete before their first Grand Prix event of the season, NHK Trophy in Japan in November.

But instead, after a careful recovery, the team went on to have a breakout season on the Grand Prix, winning gold at NHK and qualifying for their first Grand Prix Final.

“Once we were able to start training again, it was training as quick as possible to get ready for NHK, then we had [Internationeaux de] France a week later, and the next thing you know, we made the Final,” Baker said.

While it was a huge breakthrough for the team—who have twice finished fourth (2018, 2015) and fifth (2017, 2016) at U.S. Nationals—it meant that the first half of their season was a whirlwind. They didn’t have time to hunker down with their new coaching team in Montreal (the formidable trio of Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer) to refine their programs until after the Final in December.

“We’re really excited to show the improvements since the Grand Prix Final,” Hawayek said in the team’s media teleconference ahead of the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “One big takeaway was the importance of the quality of the elements that we do, and how a single increase of a GOE for an element can boost your score up a lot. We’ve been working on the quality of our elements, so some elements, we changed a little bit to increase the quality and cleanliness. Others we haven’t changed, but we’ve worked on increasing the quality and the cleanliness as well.”

The U.S. Championships will be a homecoming of sorts for the team, who trained in the host city of Detroit for six years before making the move to Montreal last summer. Both said that their new coaches have emphasized a mentality of “training to win,” and it’s with that goal in mind that they are heading to Detroit.

“Nationals is a big opportunity for us,” Baker said. “Our goal is to be pushing towards the top tier in the U.S., because then we are in the top tier in the world. We go into training every day training to win.”

Hawayek said that is a new approach for the duo, because, “in the past, we’ve been afraid of the idea of training to win, because it is hard to get to the top. But if you never allow yourself to think you can get there, you won’t be able to.”

Baker said he is now free of concussion symptoms, and credited the support of both Hawayek and their team in Montreal for helping him know when to rest the injury and when to push through.

“When you have a concussion or multiple concussions, sometimes the symptoms can linger a lot longer than people anticipate,” Baker said. “But the best thing about being Montreal is that I’m not alone; I have Kaitlin, I have my support team around me. I thought I knew my body, and they almost understand my body more than I do, in a way—they are so in tune. Kaitlin has been a rock for me throughout this whole process. I’m quite free of symptoms now and it feels great to be able to just kind of go.”

In training, they’ve been focusing on the key points in the Tango Romantica rhythm dance pattern, while also working to increase the performance of the tango character. Baker explained their goal is to earn higher than a level 2 on the pattern. In the free dance, Hawayek added that there haven’t been any major layout changes, but small tweaks to enhance the flow both within elements and in connecting from element to element.

There were a number of changes to the ice dance judging system during the off season, including the introduction of new elements like the choreographic character step sequence and one foot step sequence. Hawayek said the one foot step sequence isn’t the team’s favorite, since they feel their creativity is limited on one foot. But the opposite is true on the choreographic character step.

“I think it is such a cool element that some people do not take advantage of,” Baker said. “Both Kaitlin and I love it, because there is such a freedom to it. Yes, we want to be able to skate the whole program like that, but I think it can really be taken advantage of [in the character step], with it being just a GOE-based step. You can really allow yourself to just go and feel and dance, as opposed to really structure your turns properly and making sure that everything is squeaky clean on top of dancing.”

With that goal of skating with freedom and squeaky clean turns in mind, Hawayek and Baker will take the ice at the U.S. Championships when the rhythm dance kicks off on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 25, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.