Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker are the 2014 world junior ice dance champions. They also had back-to-back fifth place finishes at nationals in 2016 and 2017. Despite their young age compared to other teams in the U.S. dance field, they say they are ready to challenge for one of three spots on the PyeongChang Olympic team.
Are you approaching this season as “the Olympic season” or are you focusing on it as just “next season”?
Hawayek: We have our goals of the Olympics and really making sure we’re strategic in the way that we plan our competitions and everything. But in the sense of the way we train, I don’t really think it’s changing. There’s no difference one year to another with the way you skate itself, the technique, and the way you train on the ice; it’s all the same. By keeping that pressure and that sense of it, not putting the Olympics as this giant focus of the season, has been helping us stay really positive and work really hard, and not get too bogged down on one competition, since it is an entire season, and a long one at that.
Can you tell us what your programs are for next season?
Baker: Well, we have a short dance, which is Latin-themed. And we actually decided we’re keeping our free dance this year, from last year’s.
Cool! How did you come to that decision?
Baker: We really love it, obviously. The way that we performed it Nationals was definitely not the way that we had ever trained it. We really know that even on our good times that we performed it at competitions, it was still not our best. People say maybe our peak performance last year was NHK [Trophy]’s free dance. But for us, we still can find so many things in which we can improve on from that performance. And we’re really looking into finding that growth of this program. We never really found that we hit that pinnacle, like, ‘Okay, we really maxed out this program. We can’t get better.’ We always know that we can grow on it. We wanted to do the program more justice.
Hawayek: It’s really nice. Like you said, with it being an Olympic season, all of the top competitors ahead of us, they already competed the rhumba in the Latin style back in 2012, when it was a rhumba. They’ve already had a little bit – Jean-Luc just said once or twice – so they already have a bit of experience with that. We were junior at that time so we never competed the rhumba and this is our first year that Jean-Luc and I together will be doing a Latin style. By keeping our free dance, we already have a base groundwork done with that. Now we can work to improve and make that program better, and it also gives us a lot of time to focus on creating a really interesting, fun, and unique Latin program that we feel is just as strong as our free dance.
I think that makes a lot of sense.
Baker: We really found that with it being an Olympic season, we know how good these American teams are that ahead of us are. But that does not mean that we’re not capable of competing with them. We’re still willing and going to push ourselves as much as possible to push for one of those spots on the Olympic team. And just prove to the United States that even though we’re a little bit younger, we’re ready for it and we want to push for this.
Speaking of being a bit on the younger side, is there one piece of advice that you’ve gotten that really sticks out for you?
Hawayek: Jean-Luc is close with Charlie [White] and I’m close with Meryl [Davis, together, the 2014 Olympic champions in ice dance], and they both just encourage us to – the same way they did in their career – to never stop and never stop aiming to improve. And to really focus on ourselves rather than competitors ahead or behind us. I think that’s worked for Jean-Luc and I in the past. Obviously, we’ve had our good competitions and bad competitions. In general, by really trying to focus on each other and work on improving our own goals from competition to competition, rather than comparing ourselves to another team, it allows us to grow the most we can. We were fortunate enough to get that advice from our peers.
Can you both describe your first memories of knowing what figure skating is or learning what the Olympics were for the first time?
Hawayek: I honestly feel like we’ve been skating so long that it’s hard to come back to a first memory of watching the Olympics. My mom used to figure skate when she was younger and she wanted both my brothers and I to learn to figure skate. I would always be in an ice rink as my older brother played hockey. I would watch all the skaters on the figure skating rink go out there. It looked like a lot of fun. So that’s when my mom put me in it. I think I took it a little bit more seriously than anyone ever expected from there.
Baker: There isn’t necessarily which I remember where it was like a turning point for myself. I remember watching the 2010 Vancouver Games and ’06 and being really inspired by the competitiveness of ice dance especially. The Games itself, too, but the competitiveness of ice dance is so intense I think because in all the other disciplines it’s equally as intense but it’s very much based on I think, who has the biggest, baddest tricks, right? In ice dance, you have to deliver every single time. Not just one or two teams deliver, it’s the whole field.
Going back to the beginning: At first, when you guys first partnered up, neither of you were from Michigan?
Hawayek: I was living in Michigan when we partnered up together, but neither of us is from Michigan originally. I’ve been in Michigan for about eight years now and Jean-Luc for about five. This is our sixth season together but about five years together. Both of us came from opposite sides of the country. I’m from Buffalo, New York and Jean-Luc’s from outside of Seattle, Washington. I think both us when we moved, we just knew that Detroit was the up and coming place, it had the best facilities, the best training mates, and the best coaches. It just seemed like the right fit for both of us.
Is there a reason you decided on Detroit versus other ice dance hot spots like Canton or Novi?
Hawayek: I think we felt most comfortable. We’ve always felt incredibly connected with our coaches. Angelika [Krylova] and Pasquale [Camerlengo] treat their students like family. They really, truly care about every one of their students. We felt really comfortable with them. Also at the time that we moved, as a young team, and as a team developing, DSC [Detroit Skating Club] had just a ton, a ton of training mates. It’s a lot quieter nowadays but we’re at our own level where we can really push ourselves. We really enjoy being that top team to look up to. Back when we first started it was really nice to have a group of people that we could watch and feel supported by and motivated by as well.
Baker: A big thing also for me too moving to DSC over the other ones was that my mom used to train with Pasquale herself and used to compete with them when she had her career. She knew his personality and what he was like and that she could trust him and everything like that. That was a big selling point being an only child for myself.
Did you really move the day after high school? Was that scary?
Baker: Yep. 100 percent. During my spring break I took an extra week. I did my spring break in a week. I did it here with Kaitlin. We got our programs. That was like tryout, slash program. I went home for six weeks to finish school and then I had my last day of high school. I had my graduation on a Friday. I had my grad party that night but I didn’t go to it because my flight was the next morning at 5 a.m. to come to Michigan. So I for sure flew out as quickly as possible.
What made you so sure that you were all in with Kaitlin? What made you guys click early on?
Baker: During our tryout, I knew in like five minutes it was gonna work. It worked really well. We just really clicked together and the way that we worked together. With Angelika being there at our tryout, it was a very positive working environment. I think the biggest thing people make the mistakes with is that they think that the grass is always greener. Kaitlin was exactly what I was looking for. It worked out exactly how I wanted it to. It’s great.
What moment in your career would you guys call your breakout moment?
Hawayek: There have been a couple for different reasons. Obviously Junior Worlds [they won gold in 2014] was fantastic because we felt like we were able to get such positive results in such a short amount of time. So to see people supporting us without much history together – years of experience as an ice dance team – it’s really unheard of. Most of the time you have to pay your dues and getting that quick success was a big confidence boost.
Baker: I think for me actually our first competition in Lake Placid was the moment where I knew it would work. We had only skated together at that point [about] six weeks total. And then we won our Lake Placid event. It was a big moment. We were so supported off the bat, right away.
What’s a day in the life like for you?
Hawayek: I’m gonna start to laugh, but we’re very different people. For instance, Jean-Luc can nap for at least 20 times a day. I’m not joking. Jean-Luc is a nap god – and I can’t nap at all. I fill my rest time with different things compared to like when Jean-Luc has downtime he’s usually either eating or sleeping. But like we usually start training around 8, 8:30 every day. Some breaks throughout the day. Our training day usually ends around 4 and then Jean-Luc and I both coach lessons after that just to help get some funds to pay the bills. After that, we both have our own things we do for recovery and spending time with friends. It’s kind of boring when we talk about a typical day in the life: we go in, we skate, we train, we do a little coaching…
Baker: We don’t travel as much as the Shibs [ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani] do – they travel all over. Their life looks fun!