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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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Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes – less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa, Florida, and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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