There are seasons that can make a career and seasons you just, well, manage. Sometimes they’re one in the same, though Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker will have to look back from a spot well down the line to know if this is one of those.
Right now, with the calendar just turning over to 2016, it’s simply this for the young American ice dancers: “A growing season for us — and maybe a little bit of a rough ride,” said Baker.
“We’ve been managing a lot of different situations,” Hawayek added.
There was the concussion Baker suffered in September, though not from a nasty fall to the ice as you might expect in a swift and slippery sport.
“I whacked him with an elbow,” Hawayek confessed.
A couple months later, it was Hawayek who was felled by a nasty case of food poisoning on the eve of the Cup of China competition in Beijing. She gritted through the short dance after having been up all night, vomiting eight times in four hours, but eventually the pair had to withdraw from the second of their two ISU Grand Prix assignments.
And then there are programs in both the short and free dance that have been challenging — for the skaters and sometimes the judges.
“It was a gamble,” Baker acknowledged, “but we decided we wanted to push ourselves.”
There have been rewards — a fourth-place finish at Skate America, and a silver medal at a Challenger Series event in Croatia — with time for more. Up next is the U.S. Figure Skating Championships beginning Jan. 15 in St. Paul, Minn., where a top-three finish can send them to their first world championships as senior competitors — though it’s crowded at the top.
American ice dancers just finished 2-4-6 at the ISU Grand Prix Final in Barcelona last month, and all three pairs — Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Maia and Alex Shibutani, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue — won gold at different grand prix stops during the season.
That can make it rough on a new pairing; Hawayek and Baker are in just their fourth season together, and their second as seniors. But they also saw French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron leap from 13th in the world to first a year ago in the post-Olympic turnover.
“I think there was some pushing from all the federations to have something new to offer,” said Baker. “People are ready to see new teams at the top.”
Hawayek, 18, and Baker, 22, certainly qualify — even if Baker’s roots in the sport go deep.
His mother, Sharon Jones Baker, competed in ice dancing for Great Britain in the Calgary 1988 Olympic Winter Games, and father Stephen was a pairs skater. Born in England, he was raised in the Pacific Northwest before moving to Michigan, where he connected with Hawayek — originally from Buffalo, New York — in 2012.
Their launching-pad season in 2013-14 was nothing short of sensational, resulting in gold medals at two junior grand prix events and another at the junior world championships, with a world-record score. Last year’s transition to the senior level was promising — a grand prix bronze at the NHK Trophy and fourth in the U.S. championships.
“I never felt like we were overwhelmed or shouldn’t have been there,” Hawayek said of the jump to seniors. “A lot of that comes from having trained alongside senior teams for so long; we pretty much knew what it would feel like and were mature enough to handle it. If we just give all of our time and effort to each other, dealing with what’s within our control, we’ll be fine.”
Still, the adjustments continue. Baker understands that their coaching team — Pasquale Camerlengo, Anjelika Krylova and Natalia Annenko-Deller — “are more intense now, more on us about things, and just not as lenient because the margin of error is significantly smaller. There are no big-trick elements to score on. What you think is OK is not OK at all.
“In ice dancing, you have to have a clean program — and then it’s up to the judges whose hair they like the best.”
A joke. Sort of.
But there is a challenge in setting themselves apart. Hawayek and Baker have tried to do that in both their programs this season, starting with a short dance set to elements from “The Nutcracker” that is “significantly more difficult than anything either of us have done,” Hawayek said.
But perhaps the real departure is their free dance that isn’t just skated to the music from the movie “The Theory of Everything” but is a true concept piece that draws from the story of Stephen Hawking, the famed British physicist, and his relationship with his first wife, Jane, as he grappled with ALS.
“We didn’t just want to blend in with the pack,” Baker said. “You can do more than just skate a routine — anyone can change the sport. At the end of the day, we want to move people as much as possible, just as what happens when you see a great movie or a play. We have the ability to tell a story, and really people aren’t just paying to come watch us skate. They want a performance, and you can’t just do it to random music. We want to show a story — and the connection between the two of us.
“It’s good to take some risks, and this is a good window to do it. After this season, we have two more to the Olympic year to see what will work for us. We’re just trying to learn from this.”