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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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At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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