Interview by Gina Capellazzi (figureskatersonline.com)
Article by Anne Calder (ice-dance.com)
Photos by Melanie Heaney
While the 2022 U.S. bronze medalists have enjoyed a National and International competitive ten year partnership, the team is making its SOI debut this post season. They skated in the 2022 Japan Stars on Ice Tour before taking a respite in Montreal prior to performing on the final leg of the US SOI. The duo will join the tour on May 20, in Glendale, Arizona.
“We love the opportunity to perform for an audience and also getting to do it with some of our best friends,” Baker said. “We are so thrilled to be part of the last seven shows.”
Hawayek added, “Performing in show settings, we can be a bit more creative and push the boundaries when not having to stay in a set of rules. The cast already touring has some of our closest friends. We’ve already created a tight bond throughout our entire careers, but especially sharing the Olympic experience in February.”
“We’re actually only doing one solo, “Black and Gold” by Sam Sparro, to keep the show length,” Baker said.
The 2014 World Junior Champions have already gotten feedback for what to anticipate. The daily routine includes practice, the show, a meet and greet and then bus travel to the next destination, usually arriving quite late at night.
“They told us the schedule was rigorous, but a lot of fun because the crowds, regardless of size, have been super enthusiastic and engaged – the best in many years,” Hawayek said.
THE 2021-22 SEASON
The pre-Olympic season was a challenge for the Montreal-based team. Hawayek suffered a concussion in July while working on a new lift. The team withdrew from early competitions and their first Grand Prix assignment. In November, they made their season debut at Rostelecom Cup in Sochi, Russia, finishing fifth, followed by a win at the Golden Spin at Zagreb, Croatia.
The US Nationals were held in early January due to the Winter Olympics the following month. The competition was at the Nashville, Tennessee Bridgestone Arena.
“We both were very nervous having a crowd in Nashville because of the ramifications of Omicron,” Hawayek explained. “We were so grateful that there were people in the crowd to share that collective experience, but it was more of a stressor initially than it was something to be excited about.”
As for the competition itself, Baker is very proud for delivering a mesmerizing free program after a mistake in the rhythm dance had landed them in fourth place, behind Green & Parsons.
“We skated first in the group based on our draw. It was one of those moments where we looked at each other and knew all we needed to do was trust our training. We subconsciously let people know that this is our time right now. This is our moment to step into what our dreams have been. I think [we were] just being so connected and so in zone together and not allowing any outside noise with COVID, with results, with skates, or anything affect us.”
“I remember hitting the end pose. I put her (Kaitlin) down from the lift, and I was like ‘stay focused, the choreographic lift is at the end’ – ‘there’s three seconds left – do not lose focus.’ And then I started laughing as we were like skating backwards because it was like, ‘Oh my gosh’, and then I like started getting goosebumps, and I looked at Kaitlin, and it was just like such a moment that I hope I never ever, ever forget.”
It was surreal. The scores were outstanding, but they needed to wait for two more teams before Green & Parsons would skate. At night’s end, they had held on for the bronze medal. That still didn’t punch an automatic ticket to the Olympics. The Committee had to vote. Around 1:00 am, they received the call that Beijing was the next stop on their competitive agenda.
“I was actually surprised with the normalcy of how the Olympic event felt. It was very cool seeing the Olympic Rings on the ice,” noted Baker.” Everyone kept saying that we were Olympians, but I said not until we compete.”
“After we finished the rhythm dance, we walked around the corner, and there was a TV camera in our face. It was not until then that I truly believed we were Olympians.”
“It had been so stressful to get to that point, not just the training, but really trying to make sure we just avoided COVID. From December on, we were very secluded. We were trying not to see anybody. We were really just trying to keep to ourselves as much as possible, get our training done, keep our heads low and just try to avoid it.”
In Beijing there were many exciting moments to celebrate.
“The most obvious [for me] would be the opening and closing ceremonies,” Hawayek noted. “Just being able to walk with your entire country [mates] and share that collective memory was really special. It was also super special to watch Nathan (Chen) win gold, and our teammates Madi (Hubbell) & Zach (Donohue) and Madi (Chock) and Evan (Bates) in the team and individual events.”
“I think watching Nathan deliver the performance that he did was very special,” Baker added. “I just screamed my soul out of my body. I had just watched my best friend win the Olympics. It was so cool! We all had tears in our eyes seeing the fruits of his labor show up and getting what he truly deserves. It was an ecstatic experience. The opening ceremony was almost a similar feeling, but being able to watch him win his Olympic title was so cool.”
2022 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS APPROACH
The World Championships were held in Montpellier, France four weeks after the Olympic closing ceremony. It was the final senior event for 2021-2022.
“Usually at the end of the season we feel like we’ve competed the program so many times,” Hawayek said. “This year, it was only our fifth time competing it, but we felt this sense of sureness with our performances, that we could go into them and just essentially trust ourselves. We were really relaxed into the performances and enjoyed the crowd so much.”
“Obviously, we had to make it through the end of the week, but there weren’t going to be ramifications afterwards, so we were able to fully enjoy the crowd,” Hawayek said. “Sometimes when you’re in a competitive program, you try to tune everything out, and you focus into your performance. You don’t really engage with the external, but I found that we used the audience there (in France), to help elevate our performances.”
“In our rhythm dance, we bought into their energy. [The following day], there was a beautiful silence the audience had in our free dance that I felt we were able to kind of melt into. I would say our Worlds experience was just full of enjoyment, and I think that was reflected in the way we performed.”
Hawayek & Baker were eighth – their best ever World Championship finish.
VISITING THE WHITE HOUSE WITH THE SUMMER AND WINTER OLYMPIANS
“It was really so special to be in a more comfortable relaxed setting [at the White House] with all of the winter athletes we had met briefly at the Games. We also added in an entire summer Olympics [group],” Hawayek said. “Just to be around such a diversity of excellence where we all had this shared accomplishment, but with such different ways and experiences getting there. It was a bit overwhelming. We got to know a lot of other athletes and obviously, being at the White House was pretty spectacular too.”
“Having the opportunity to meet the summer Olympians as well, it was surreal,” Baker said. “I had so much fun at the Winter Games because I’m a huge social butterfly. I talked to everybody. So it was cool getting the opportunity to meet even more people and know that everyone has worked so much and put so much time and effort into becoming an Olympian. I think it was just absolutely phenomenal to be surrounded by so much greatness and so many personalities. It was awesome!”
REFLECTING ON THE 2021-22 SEASON
Hawayek’s fall and concussion in July, had made the beginning of the 2021-2022 season very difficult for the duo. Recently, they reflected on how those earlier days affected their season.
“I don’t wish anything was different,” Hawayek said. “because I actually think that we’ve grown a lot stronger from the way the season happened. We learned to have a much deeper trust in ourselves that we might not have been forced to find if we hadn’t been faced with more adversity.”
“I wouldn’t have changed anything either because it got us to where we wanted to go,” added Baker. “A huge thing for us is having the belief and knowing that everything does happen for a reason [even though] you may not see it in the moment. We absolutely did not when we had the injury, but we ended up competing some of the best (programs) we have at the end of the season. We put out strong performances like the free dance at Nationals, getting our spot on the Olympic team, another solid performances at the Olympics and then our best finish at Worlds.”
The ISU recently announced the ice dance technical rules for next season’s rhythm dance. The senior rhythm is Latin with no pattern. There is a pattern step sequence and choreographic rhythm sequence, along with choreographic assisted jumps.
The reigning U.S. bronze medalists commented on the changes.
“It’s kind of a shame that they don’t have the pattern in the rhythm dance anymore,” Baker said. “If you were to look at ice dance over the past four or five years, it’s lost a little bit of its essence in the pattern dance anyway. Everyone is only focused on how to do an outside and inside edge and get this key point as clean as possible. You’re losing the root of what made ice dance kind of ice dance with the pattern dance. It’s a shame that they got rid of it.”
“The addition of a choreographic step sequence in the rhythm dance is going to bring a really cool liveliness to the rhythm dance. In our experience, we’re usually looking at 20% less of the audience capacity watching the rhythm dance. Then with the free dance, there’s more people. It might just be because the free dance is usually on Saturday.”
“I think [the choreographic step sequence] could bring more of an audience into the picture because it will make it a little bit more interesting, where the pattern dance didn’t for the average fan.”
“Choreographic assisted jumps, or anything that just gives us a little bit more freedom, or more opportunity to have some fun, depends where your creativity is. It all depends on your choice of music because realistically in the end that’s going to determine what elements you’re going to choose.”
Hawayek added, “I agree with Jean-Luc. I think that, especially from a standpoint of just the history of ice dance, the pattern dance has always been there. It’s required in ice dance testing. It was its own event, so it’s just a bit hard to imagine ice dance without any sort of pattern dance.“
“At the same time, things can’t always stay the same, so I’m going into it with an open mind and also with the excitement of having a choreo step sequence just to bring out some creativity. I think it could bring more engagement for sure and more interest to the sport. So, it’ll be interesting. I had my reservations, but I do think that there could be some benefit to it.”
The team has been taking every opportunity to get ahead with a really good jumpstart on the season.
“Outside of the actual shows that we’ve done with Stars on Ice, and one we had a few weekends ago at Penn State, we’ve been training full time,” Hawayek said. “We already have a rhythm dance done, and we’re working on our free dance as well. So we’ve been really busy in our time between shows.”
The Buffalo, New York native continued. “Our intention with this offseason is to really use it to our advantage. We’re hoping that by the time our personal vacation comes we’ll have our programs set. We can enjoy the rest and then start training the dances when we get back. We’re excited about our programs and think they’re fun and about who we are as people.”
Hawayek & Baker are happy with the performances that capped off their season. They’re also aware that the retirement of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue opens up a big opportunity to move up the ladder. They plan to exert an all-out effort to attain a National Title.
“We understand Chock and Bates have been there for a very long time, but we have hefty goals for ourselves,” Baker noted. “We need to believe we can push ourselves to that point. We’re not going to just step down and let them just step up if that makes any sense.
“Kaitlin and I have talked about pushing to the top six placement in the World. I think that is very feasible with the skill set that we produced, and we’re only getting better and stronger. That’s something that we are really hoping to be driving towards. We know that the competition is very stiff, and we have no idea who’s staying, coming or going. We can’t really focus on that.”
Hawayek discussed their long range objectives and the 2026 Olympics.
“That’s absolutely a potential goal, but we’re really focused on one year at a time. This season our goal, like Jean-Luc said, is top two at Nationals, pushing to be national champion and top six at Worlds, pushing for World podium. I’d say those two sum it up easily as our future goals.”
“We can only focus on ourselves and the personal goals that we want to accomplish at the end of the day. It’s the day in day out goal system that works well for us.”