Article & inset photo by Michelle Kennedy | Feature photo by Robin Ritoss

Ice dancers, Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker, have only been skating with each other for roughly four years, but they have quickly become one of the rising teams to watch in the U.S. After partnering in 2012, they captured the silver at their very first U.S. championships and went on to become the U.S. junior champions in 2014. The team then capped off the 2014 season by winning the World Junior Championships. Next, Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker moved on to the senior ranks where they came in fourth at the U.S. Championships in 2015 and finished in fifth at the 2016 U.S. Championships. They are young, fresh and carry a competitive fire that sets them apart.

Last season was the first time in their partnership that they began to experience some bumps in the road. Jean-Luc sustained a concussion early in the season, which took him off the ice for two weeks and Kaitlin had severe food poisoning during the Cup of China Grand Prix, causing them to withdraw from the event.

“It felt like the whole season we were only able to chase what we needed to be performing like, and not be able to have a performance level set and be able to grow on it,” Baker said. “It was a really good learning experience for us for, trying to learn how to adapt, going into events where we didn’t feel 100% prepared, but you have to do it because you don’t have a choice. You can withdraw if you would like, but sometimes you just need to figure a way to get through it.”

Learning how to cope and deal with challenges is part of what creates an experienced, successful team and Baker is no stranger to challenges. He was born with a club foot, where his foot was 180 degrees backward. The doctors informed his mother that he would never be able to walk, but his mom did not settle for this prognosis. The first six months of his life, his foot was in a cast and his foot dragged behind him as he tried to walk as a toddler. After a lot of hard work and therapy his foot began to function somewhat normally. Baker’s mother, who was an ice dancer at the 1988 Olympic Games, put him in skates, determined that he should at least try.

“My right foot is a [size] 9 but my left is a [size] 7 1/2,” he explained. “I have two different size skates, no one ever really notices. The hardest thing is shoes, like flip-flops are the worst, but it’s completely workable. Skating has probably been the best thing for me because I’ve been in a stiff skate my whole life, for the most part.”

It’s a good thing that this team knows how to overcome adversity, as the U.S. ice dance field has grown increasingly deep and being noticed and fighting for the top spots has become especially difficult. When asked what it is like trying to contend for a spot in U.S. ice dance, Hawayek replied, “You always need to show up, you always need to make sure you’re on your A-game, which is exciting though. I think for both of us we like that motivation and that competitive atmosphere.”

Despite the amount of talented competition that the team is up against, they are confident in their abilities and both have a keen sense of what they bring to the table that is different than the rest of the field. In many ways, what other teams have pointed out might be a weakness for them, they have worked to make a strength.

Most teams have a distinctive height difference between the two skaters, but Hawayek & Baker do not. They believe that it gives them the ability to look at one another face-to-face during their performances and allows for a different type of connection between the two of them. Kaitlin believes that this is just one of the components that sets them apart from the crowd along with their youthfulness, as Baker is 22 and Hawayek is only 19 years-old.

“You see a lot of people in this day and age try to look mature, not that we don’t have a maturity in our skating, but they can’t have the youth that we have because we are young,” she expressed. “You see people that have been around the block and they’ve been to the Olympics once or twice, let alone every other competition you can enter, and that experience is great, but there’s something to say about being young and fresh and something new, and that’s something we have.”

Hawayek & Baker are planning to use their youthfulness to their advantage in their new short dance where they have opted to try a dance genre that they have never attempted before —hip hop. Both love watching “So You Think You Can Dance” and enjoy trying new dance styles, so when this opportunity came their way they certainly did not shy away from it. The team is skating to Michael Buble’s “Feeling Good” and “How I Feel Remix” by Flo Rida.

“The one thing that we were skeptical of (with it being a Michael Buble song) we were worried that it might be possibly overused in the skating world,” Baker said. “But to be honest with you, if you give the judges something that they understand or they have heard or seen before, it’s a lot easier for them than something that is like, ‘wait, what is this?’”

HawBaker-0816-MK-0868They performed a modified version of their new short dance at the Sprinker Ice Arena’s Summer Program in Tacoma, Washington where they were special guests.  When it comes to their free dance they were not ready to reveal their music choice just yet, but did say that the program is coming along well and they are very excited about it.

“We’re going for pure enjoyment with our skating this year,” Hawayek said. “Nothing too intricate story wise, we just want to show beautiful skating and be able to do a program that the audience can sit back and enjoy easily.”

Hopefully after having a somewhat turbulent season last year, this season the team will be able to get back on track and continue their upward momentum as they bring their best to the ice.