Buffalo native Kaitlin Hawayek figured she had seen it all in her career as a competitive ice dancer. But she’ll be the first to tell you that this year’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships went right to the dogs.
“We didn’t have an audience,” Hawayek said this week from her home in Montreal. “There were cardboard cutouts in the stands instead of actual people. It was weird, but nice in a sense that you don’t usually get to have dogs and animals in the audience. We had a lot of dog cardboard cutouts.”
Hawayek, a dog lover, laughed at the memory. Cardboard cutouts and all, the nationals were a memorable and rewarding experience for Hawayek and her long-time dancer partner, Jean-Luc Baker. They won a bronze medal at the event, which was held two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
As any athlete or entertainer could tell you, it’s a boundless joy to simply perform during the pandemic. Hawayek and Baker finished third in the nation for the third year in a row, putting them in very good position to qualify for the U.S. team for next year’s Olympics in Beijing, China.
“I really tip my hat to our federation for the amount that they put into making the event happen,” Hawayek said. “There are a lot of countries that have foregone their championship events. U.S. Figure Skating put a lot of effort into making sure that the proper regulations and safety precautions were put in place to allow a successful competition to happen.”
It wasn’t easy. Figure skaters draw on the pulsating energy and emotion of a big crowd during a performance, which is as much artistic as it is athletic. That’s especially true for ice dancing, where the skaters have more creative freedom and a rhythmic bond between each other and the audience.
Hawayek said it was difficult. But it would have been even harder to skate solo. She was grateful to compete with a partner — in Baker’s case, someone with whom she has been skating for nine years.
“We were able to funnel the energy we would usually get from an audience into one another,” she said. “So while there was a lack of audience interaction, at least I had another person on the ice to be able to draw a connection from. I give the people in the individual sports a lot of credit, because I’m sure it probably felt quite quiet and isolated for them.”
“I think because we were privy to the knowledge that there wouldn’t be an audience, we were mentally prepared and didn’t have false expectations.”
Again, it was a relief to simply perform. A year earlier, Hawayek and Bates had won bronze in the 2020 nationals. Then, as they were training for the World Championships, the pandemic hit with a vengeance, bringing the competitive sports world to a virtual standstill.
The worlds were scheduled for March in Montreal, which is where Hawayek and Bates have lived and trained since 2018. So not only did they miss out on competing in worlds, they lost a chance to do it on home ice.
One benefit to the shutdown was that Hawayek got a chance to return to her original home — in Western New York. She grew up in East Aurora and began ice skating when she was 3. She took up ice dancing and moved to Michigan to train when she was 13 years old.
Her parents, Jon and Kirstin, bought a condo in suburban Detroit to alternate time with Kaitlin when she was younger. When the pandemic hit last March, Hawayek and Baker decided to move in with her parents in East Aurora for a time so they could be together to train. Baker is from Seattle, which was an early COVID hot spot, so Buffalo seemed safer.
“We stayed with my parents from the middle of March to the end of June, which was a big adjustment,” she said. “I haven’t fully lived home in Buffalo since I was 13. My skating partner and I have never lived together in the 10 years we’ve skated together. It was definitely an adjustment, but I think everyone made some sort of adjustment in the pandemic.”
“It was really good to get home. The silver lining was I got to spend time with my family that I haven’t had time to do over the last decade.”
They also got a break when ice became available at a twin rink in Lockport a month or so after they arrived in Western New York. One of the two rinks has been opened as a day-care facility for essential workers. The other was empty, so they could train on the ice early in the mornings.
“I feel incredibly grateful for that, because it gave my partner Jean-Luc and I a leg up on getting back into things,” Kaitlin said. “I know certain teams went up to 12 or 13 weeks of not being able to train. It was definitely a perk for us going back to the U.S. and staying in Buffalo.”
Being off the ice for any length of time can be stressful. There’s no way to replicate the delicate balance and coordination required for ice dancing. You build strength and stamina mainly by working on the ice.
“I’m a creature of habit,” said Hawayek, who is working toward a psychology degree from Penn State. “I love routine and I love feeling like I’m working. So initially, I was incredibly nervous with the idea of not knowing when I would be able to skate again. As the first month ticked by, it was wearing on my sleep a bit, not knowing what that time off would be like in terms of maintaining skill and momentum and everything.”
“But I was quite pleasantly surprised. I guess there’s a level of muscle memory you maintain from doing an elite sport for over a decade. It gave me peace of mind, knowing that if anything should come up again as far as not being able to access ice or train, I can lean into that sense of knowing my skills are there and they’re not going to just disappear.”
She and Baker got a chance to test those skills in October, when the International Skating Union held a modified Grand Prix event in Las Vegas, which would be the site of the nationals three months later.
“We were fortunate that the national championships were held in the same location as that event in October,” Hawayek said. “i think having that previous experience allowed us to settle into the setting and changes for what a normal competition would look like. But our first experience in the quote unquote bubble was a lot different.”
Hawayek and Baker finished second at the Grand Prix in October behind Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donahue. It was a familiar finish. Hubbell and Donahue won the national title in 2019, and they won it again this year. They were second in 2020. Hawayek and Baker have finished third in the last three national championships.
That’s how it tends to go in the subjective sports, like skating and gymnastics and synchronized swimming. Your reputations preceded you with the judges, and it’s hard to break through the slotting. Progress can be painfully slow, and frustrating. Hawayek-Baker’s results in the last seven nationals, from 2015 forwards: Fourth, fifth, fifth, fourth, third, third, third.
“You don’t like to think that there’s a hierarchy in sports,” she said, “because essentially if you put in the work and you deliver and you’re the best, you should be able to be rewarded. But the challenge of figure skating, compared to other sports, is that it is subjective to the viewer.”
“It’s not like a timed or distance sport. There isn’t that innate objectivity to the sport. So it gets challenging sometimes, when you see teams that have established themselves for so many years, to kind of shift the mindset of the people that are judging you to think that you could upset the hierarchy.”
“But it’s been instrumental for Jean-Luc and I over the last three years to stop thinking about where we’re going to place, because ultimately they’re not part of our story. Once we let that go, it allowed us to be the top athletes people are seeing us as now.”
Don’t get her wrong. They’re extremely competitive athletes and would love to be atop the podium. But Hawayek said there’s something beautiful about creating art that can move themselves and others. That’s what drives them.
The Olympics has always been the big goal. Four years ago, they were alternates for the Games in South Korea after a disappointing fourth-place finish at nationals. They’re in position to make the team for Beijing. First, there’s the World Championships next month in Stockholm, assuming there are no unanticipated surges in the coronavirus.
“I’d say we’re heavily favored right now to make that Olympic team come next January,” Hawayek said. “It’s cumulative results, usually over a 12-month period. So our placement last week was really important for that, as well as upcoming competitions the rest of the year.”
Hawayek took time off after the nationals and came home to spend time with family. They spent last Sunday night rooting for the Bills in their AFC title game loss to the Chiefs. She had to quarantine for 14 days when she returned to Canada.
“It’s so exciting for Buffalo,” she said. “I was walking around my neighborhood and literally every person I passed said, ‘Go Bills.’ “
The way things are going, people will be watching the Olympics a year from now and saying, “Go, Kaitlin.’ What a delight it’ll be to have real live fans rooting her on from the stands, instead of those cardboard cutouts.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.