Kaitlin Hawayek is one of the brightest athletes you would ever want to meet, an ice dancer whose observations can be as deep and flowing as her movements on the rink. A recent revelation:

“I told someone the other day that the only certain thing in life is that life is uncertain,” Hawayek said from Montreal, where she is training for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing.

The East Aurora native has encountered her share of uncertainty over the last two years. In 2020, the pandemic shut down the sports world, canceling the World Figure Skating Championships just before they were scheduled to be held in Montreal, the U.S. ice dancers’ home base.

There were no competitions for six months. But Kaitlin always sees a bright side, and in this case it was getting to go home to Western New York, where she and her ice dancing partner, Jean-Luc Baker, were able to find a rink to keep their routines in shape.

A year ago, they finished third in the U.S. championships, winning their third straight bronze in that event and making themselves a clear favorite to get one of the three spots on the national team for the Olympics.

Then, early last July, she and Baker were practicing a new lift, one they had performed many times without incident. But they pushed a little too far that day, affecting their counterbalance, and she fell and hit her head.

Hawayek went to the hospital, where she received stitches to her head and was diagnosed with a concussion.

US’ Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker perform during the ice dance programme event at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm on March 26, 2021. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was my first one, fortunately,” she recalled. “It wasn’t easy. I won’t sugarcoat it. There were definite challenges. It took a while for me to get back to full training. But I’m grateful I had the concussion in a day and age when concussions are taken very seriously.”

Hawayek was off the ice for 10 days, then began working with Sarah El Quiesi, a concussion specialist who eased her back into training. Gradually, they increased her heart rate and the duration of her exercise.

It was slow and frustrating at times. She suffered from vertigo, which limited her rotations at first and prevented her from doing moves that had become second nature.

“I wouldn’t call it fortunate, but it was a silver lining that prior to this year Jean-Luc had experienced several concussions in the course of our career,” she said. “So he had a lot of understanding and knowledge of the experience itself, which led to a lot of compassion and support throughout the process.”

Baker worked patiently on his own during Kaitlin’s recovery. They knew it was vital that she be fully recovered before they resumed training together. One thing he knew for certain after skating with Hawayek for 10 years: She would be fearless.

“Kaitlin and I have been skating together for so long, we have so much trust in what we do,” said Baker, a Seattle native. “She’s going to do everything in her power, and I am as well, to make sure we do everything to be as safe as possible. We have to push ourselves. So there’s a risk that comes with it, but also a reward.”

Hawayek came back in early August, though still limited. She admits she had doubts about their readiness for the Olympic season. She and Baker had to withdraw from some early competitions, including the U.S. International Classic and the opening Grand Prix event in Tokyo, the NHK Trophy, which has long been one of their favorites.

USA’s Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker compete in the ice dance free dance during the ISU World Team Trophy figure skating event in Osaka on April 16, 2021. (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

They finally debuted in late November at the Rostelecom Cup in Sochi, finishing fifth. A week later, they won the Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia. They were gathering momentum and confidence heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville Jan. 3-9.

Certainty? Not quite.

In the first half of the ice dancing competition at nationals, the rhythm dance, Hawayek stumbled on a basic twizzle move — a one-foot turn as you move across the ice — early in their routine to a disco remix of Donna Summers tunes.

They were a discouraging fourth after the opening event behind Caroline Green and Michael Parsons. The top American duos — Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donahue — were well ahead as anticipated. This was about third place, and a long-awaited trip to the Olympics.

“We never like to have errors in our programs,” Hawayek said. “It was definitely not what I wanted in terms of my own ability and what I know I’m capable of. At the same time, something we’ve learned and practiced over the last 10 years is that regardless of good or bad, after the first program is done you have to close that day and leave it behind and focus on the next day.”

She said she and Baker a healthy talk after the rhythm dance, then “expressed certain emotions and closed our day.” Was there anger, she was asked?

“Certainly not anger,” she said. “A little disappointment for sure. I’d say uncertainty. That wasn’t the position we wanted to be in. But that uncertainty quickly became clear, that nothing is ever certain, regardless.

“But mainly, just wanting to process how I was feeling and knowing I needed to move on to the next day.”

She and Baker realized that regardless of how they had scored in the rhythm dance, it would come down to the free dance, the larger part of the overall score. They still would have needed to do their best in the free.

“That gave us the liberty and freedom to know we had a blank slate and just go out and perform the program the next day,” Hawayek said.

On Saturday night in Nashville, before a national TV audience, they nailed the free dance. Dancing to a medley of Chopin, they glided through a performance that was both artistically lovely and athletically clutch, one that had the crowd roaring with approval at the end.

At the finish, Hawayek had this blissful look on her face. Then she wrapped her arms around Baker’s neck and began sobbing. The judges awarded them a 205.68 score, which would be easily enough for third.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker skate in the Free Dance during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena on January 8 in Nashville. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

“I’m a pretty ugly crier, to be honest,” Baker said. “I didn’t get to that point. But I almost started laughing a little bit in the ending pose, not because it was humorous but because it was like a humbling ‘Wow, we just did that!” More of an unbelievable chuckle to myself.

“It was just a surreal moment,” he said. “We train to have these performances every day, and it’s very hard to try to create the right energy — not just a clean skate but a performance where you can touch the audience like that.”

Hawayek agreed that it was a surreal moment, heightened by the fan reaction. Crowds were limited during the pandemic. At the 2021 nationals, there were cardboard cutouts in the stands. Her reaction after the free skate suggested that she was certain they had made the Olympic team. But it wasn’t automatic. The national committee still had to vote.

“No, I don’t think we really knew until we got the call around 1 a.m. that evening,” Hawayek said. “We knew our body of work was in favor of us, but we also knew we’d had an unusual, unprecedented start of our season where we weren’t able to compete as much due to an injury.

“We didn’t want to make any assumptions and take anything for granted,” she said. “My reaction on the ice was purely just knowing we had created a moment that we would look back on many years from now and nobody could ever take from us regardless of where we ended up.”

There’s joy in the performance, regardless of score and placement. Over the years, Hawayek and Baker have come to terms with the subjective nature of their sport, where the top teams become fixed in the minds of judges — “slotted,” if you will — and it’s difficult to break through.

They’ve now been third in four consecutive U.S. championships. This time, it was good enough for an Olympic berth. The chances of a medal in China are remote, but they’ve realized a lifelong goal by getting there.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, and Caroline Green and Michael Parsons pose on the medals podium after the Pairs competition during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena on January 8, 2022 in Nashville. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

“We’re true competitors,” Hawayek, 25, said. “We love to feel we’re putting ourselves in position to be on the podium and at the top and competitive with the best. But compared to some skaters who favor more of the athlete’s definition of figure skating, we view ourselves as artists.

“So, it’s equally as important for us to have moments where we know that we’ve moved audiences with our art than it is to be well-scored or placed, and honestly have the combination of both.

“It’s a reassurance of the purpose of why we skate, for moments like that,” Hawayek continued, “the elated feeling of joy and freedom and in a certain way a lot of bliss and gratitude. I think certain sports have the adrenaline and exhilaration we experienced, but I don’t think a lot of sports encompass the level of artistry and passion that skating does.”

Now they get to bring their art to the Olympics, where the passion is heightened. The free dance is on Feb. 14, one day after the Super Bowl. It was not lost on Hawayek that she was gearing up for the Olympics at the same time the Bills were gunning for the big one.

“Buffalo is my hometown,” she said. “It’s fun to see so many people who aren’t Buffalo natives get so invested in this team. It’s exciting. Maybe one day I can meet some of the Bills players and we can talk athlete experiences.”

Hawayek is more realistic about her chances of getting on the podium. Chock and Bates are ranked No. 2 in the world behind Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia. Hubbell and Donahue are fifth. Hawayek and Baker are 13th in the world.

“I like to set goals and think of ideal outcomes,” Hawayek said. “If you don’t, you lose purpose in training. Jean-Luc and I are very aware that the top six are very much in a battle for the top spots. But there’s a ton of strong athletes vying for 12th to sixth or seventh. We’ve been in the top 10 in the last three world championships. I know we have every capability of continuing to be in that top group.”

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker skate in the Rhythm Dance during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena on January 7, 2022 in Nashville. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Sadly, her family won’t be able to share it in person. Due to Covid, the Olympics will be held in a “bubble” in Beijing, with limited movement for athletes and no outsiders allowed into the country.

Her parents, Jon and Kirstin Hawayek, commuted between East Aurora and Michigan when Kaitlin was a teenager to get her top coaching. They bought a condo in suburban Detroit so they could be closer to their daughter, alternating time away so one of them could be home with her brothers, Bradley and Nathan.

“Of course, we’re all very disappointed,” Kaitlin said. “I’m pretty certain my entire immediate family, my parents and two brothers, would have made the trip out if they could have. It’s disappointing in hindsight to think that could have been the case, but both the U.S. Figure Skating and the U.S. Olympic Committee are doing some great events to involve the families and make them feel part of the Olympic experience.

“Over the last few years, I’ve had the experience of my family not being able to travel to events because of Covid, so it’s not new for me. But it’s certainly bittersweet and hopefully one day they’ll be able to be there for me in person at the Olympic. But I know their presence is still with me in Beijing.”

At 25, Hawayek is still relatively young for an ice dancer. She and Baker, 28, have no plans of retiring any time soon. Whether they take a run at the 2026 Olympics remains to be seen.

For now, she’s going to enjoy Beijing. She said the controlled environment won’t diminish her enjoyment of the Games. It’s her first and she has nothing to compare it with. It’ll sure beat 2018, when she watched the Olympics on TV as an alternate. She said skating in front of the world is like having your artwork hanging on the wall in a gallery.

“I’m just excited to be there competing on an Olympic ice,” she said, “I’ll walk in the opening and closing ceremonies and soak it all in.”

She’s going to make the most of the experience. Of that much, you can be certain.

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.