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Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker on progress this season, what Montreal means to them

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Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker won bronze medals at the U.S. Championships in January, their highest finish ever at the event. In doing so, they were named to the Four Continents team and the world championship team.

The ice dance duo finished fifth at Four Continents in Anaheim in February, and their next stop is the world championships in Saitama, Japan from March 18-24.

NBCSports.com/figure-skating spoke to Hawayek and Baker in Detroit after nationals and discussed their biggest win on the national stage, how they chose to train in Montreal, and what inspires them most about the city.

But was it hard to skate last at Nationals? What’s that like?

Baker: No. We’ve skated last a multitude of times. It’s our first time skating last at U.S. Championships, but we are seasoned competitors. In a way it’s nice to skate, like, third just because you’re warm from the warm up. It’s not any different than any day of training for us realistically. We heard Madi [Hubbell] and Zach [Donohue]’s music, and then [Madison] Chock and [Evan] Bates’ music. [Note: the top three U.S. dance teams train together in Montreal.]

Hawayek: We’re like, ‘Oh, this is like home!’

Baker: For us, it wasn’t any different. We love to be in the last group and skating in the last flight of three is always a pleasure. You’re in the top three! For us, it didn’t really change anything. The number is the number and we have a job to do.

This is a breakthrough for you, first medal at nationals.

Hawayek: Yea, it’s been a season of a lot of milestones that we’ve accomplished. We won our first Grand Prix gold medal [in Japan]. Then we made our first Grand Prix Final. Now we’re earned our first official senior medal. We’ve been fourth in the past [Note: U.S. Championships gives out pewter medals for the fourth-place finishers], which is an incredible accomplishment. It’s a medal. But in terms of what a usual competition would be like, the third place is more of a true medal, I guess.

We’re really excited to have that. To qualify for Worlds and Four Continents… last year we were fortunate enough to get the call to go to Worlds after being alternates. It’s nice to not have to wonder if we’re going, and know right off the bat that we’ll be going this year. It’s been an exciting season.

In that situation, do you train anyway, even though you’re left wondering?

Hawayek: It’s tough. We’ve been in that position. It helps you grow as athletes just because it’s a bump in the road in a way that you’re trying to get over. It’s really exciting for us to make that leap into this realm of skaters. We’re really grateful that we train with the other two that are on the podium with us every day.

This free feels pretty personal compared to characters that you may have played in the past. Do you feel differently performing it because you’re so close to it?

Hawayek: I think so. It’s something very relatable to us. The story line that we’re telling because of the injury that Jean-Luc had earlier in the season. But on a larger scale, we want that to be relatable to the audience as a whole. Everyone goes through something in their life and I think it’s emotional and powerful to have somebody else with you going through that and overcoming obstacles. That’s what we’re hoping to portray. Because it is something that hits so close to home for us, I think it’s really easy to make the emotions really authentic and natural.

I want to rewind and ask how you selected Montreal. Was Montreal the only place you considered? Were there other options on the table?

Baker: We looked around, obviously, but we wanted to find something that we thought fit not just our style but more so the environment we were looking for. We really were striving towards a family-friendly environment in a way that you end up loving what you do. It has the competitive rivalries but it’s almost second nature to what is our friendship that has built around us. We really see and saw over the years, the camaraderie of their camp. We have friends there, before we even moved. They just told us how amazing it was.

For us it was quite an easy decision, or a very obvious one for us to try and make the move. We had heard a lot of teams had asked to go and we were put on a waiting list as well, because they had to figure out their options to talk to their teams. Like Madi Hubbell said, they have that strong bond because they respect the teams so much. It was a pretty easy go-ahead for us.

Jean-Luc, in the past you had said to me that you preferred more of the theatrical motifs in ice dance compared to what they were doing in Montreal. But you came to Montreal anyway. I’m wondering how you came to terms with that or if your mindset changed.

Baker: I think that realistically, it’s the place that we wanna be in terms of… it’s what we need for our training environment. If I think that we are given an opportunity like next year, for instance, with rhythm dance being Broadway and/or opera, I believe… I think that it’s a great opportunity for us to explore that theatrical side of things which I think Kaitlin and I would be very, very good at.

Like we had mentioned, we really moved to Montreal for the environment. Not necessarily the material they create. They do create phenomenal material but it seems as though they’re focusing now with the teams that we’re training with, I’m starting to see a lot more diversity in terms of growing each skaters’ strength, as opposed to guiding each skater in the same direction.

There are lot of skaters who say Montreal itself is so inspiring. What it is about the city? The language? The culture? The things to do?

Hawayek: I think that has a big part of it. I think it’s really neat to be in a city with such a unique culture. There is both the Western and the European influence that they carry throughout the city. There’s the downtown, which is very familiar to us. It feels very American. And then you head into Old Port and it feels very much like Europe. There’s a lot of diversity that we can be inspired from.

I think it’s just an inspiring place to be in general because it’s very active and healthy city. There’s people walking outside all the time. They bike, they run, they boat on the canal. It’s a very active environment. When you’re a happier person and you feel like a more well-rounded person off the ice, it’s really easy to feel inspired to improve and to grow on the ice as well. I think that’s something for both of us that we felt moving to Montreal, not only has our skating grown, but I feel like us as people have grown. We just feel more inspired throughout life in general.

MORE: Bradie Tennell on her improved artistry this season

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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MORE: Japanese athlete’s bid to become oldest Olympian in history still alive

With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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