Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker latch on to humor, joy and being organic

ISU World Team Trophy - Day One
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To survive and thrive in ice dance, you have to enjoy roller-coaster rides.

At the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden three weeks ago, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker left the ice after their free dance to minimalist composer Phillip Glass’ “First Movement” and Blondie’s 1978 blockbuster “Heart of Glass” feeling good about their chances for a career-high worlds finish.

Then, up came the score: 113.43 points, some eight points lower than what they had earned for the program at Skate America last fall.

“Technically, I think we put out a solid performance and met all the requirements with a very strict panel here, but the judges were looking for something clearly different,” Hawayek said. “Now, we understand there’s always inflation from U.S. national events, but I didn’t feel like there was that much at Skate America. And then on top of that, not 10 points less than what we performed.”

“We’re very frustrated,” Baker said. “We got extremely good feedback from this material all season, only positive and only growth feedback.”

As it turned out, other teams had similar frustrations in Stockholm. Hawayek and Baker, who stood 11th after the rhythm dance, climbed to ninth, equaling their previous best result in 2019. Not want they hoped for, but hardly a disaster.

“I think that we’re going to 100-percent push through this and it just makes us stronger at the end of the day,” Hawayek said. “And maybe at the next event, the judges will see the same program, but it’s from a different side or something like that. So we’ll see.”

That next event, World Team Trophy, is happening in Osaka, Japan this week. Hawayek and Baker take the ice for their free dance on Friday, where their goal is to earn far closer to their Skate America score than they did in Stockholm. The signs are good: on Thursday, the team gained 76.79 for their “Saturday Night Fever” rhythm dance, considerably higher than their score in Stockholm.

Worlds was just one more bump in the road for the skaters, who teamed up in June 2012 and won the world junior crown in 2014. Since then, the three-time U.S. bronze medalists have had to fight their way into the crowded U.S. ice dance spotlight, competing alongside all-time greats including Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and their current Montreal, Quebec, training partners Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (three-time reigning world medalists), and two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates. At ages 24 and 27 – still young, by ice dance standards – they believe more lies ahead and are committed to one day standing on the world podium.

“Those ups and downs, that’s not stopping anytime soon,” Hawayek said. “We’re not easily defeated. We’ve had triumphs in our career, and disappointment, and continually push pass it. I think that’s what makes us one of the strongest teams out here competing.”

Here is more on how the team uses humor and maturity to help manage competitive stress:

The last few seasons, you’ve become well-known for your comical exhibition programs, especially your gender-bending “Battle
of the Swans.”

Baker: We have our humor, just as everyone else does, and we like to portray that.

Hawayek: We both see the galas at the end of competitions as opportunities to perform and do things we can’t do in competitive programs. It’s funny because Jean-Luc and I are incredibly, incredibly serious people for our work. We take what we do on the ice to heart so much, and we go into every single day with the utmost respect for one another and for what we do. So even though we have that lightness, it’s never a lack of sincerity or seriousness.

During the final press conference at the U.S. Championships, your Montreal training partners, Hubbell and Donohue, really praised the humor you bring to the rink.

Baker: I’ve always been kind of a goofball and I like to make people smile and laugh, so sometimes I just like to do whatever I can to get to that point.

Hawayek: It kind of releases the intangible tension that could build from doing an elite sport. I’m not saying we don’t ever have those moments on the ice where we are feeling tired, or discouraged, or anything like that. That all comes with it. But I think because we lead with that lightness and that joy for what we do, it makes training easier in that respect.

Tanith White (2006 Olympic silver medalist and NBC commentator) said during a broadcast that it would be great if you would work elements of this humor into some of your competitive programs.

Baker: It is something that we’ve talked about and something we would be very willing to explore. It has to kind of arise naturally; Kaitlin and I are not going to force something like that, because we find that when you try to be funny, it’s the farthest thing from funny. You know, when you meet someone that’s really authentic, you are genuinely attracted to them. But when someone is not authentic and they kind of put on a face, you don’t really get a good vibe from them. So [authenticity] is one of the things that we really cherish when we create material, whether it be for a show or competition.

It sounds like showing that humor in a competitive program could be challenging.

Baker: When you do that kind of program, you’re so focused on the humor and the real interaction that’s happening, that sometimes you can lose sight of doing a rocker or something like that. That could take you, if you’re talking about a world stage, from third place to eighth or ninth, because we all have similar [element values]. So it’s definitely something we’re curious to explore, but we also need to play it at the right time.

Plus, different countries have different ideas of humor. What is funny in the United States, may not be as humorous abroad.

Hawayek: The reason that we like injecting humor and joyfulness and a little bit of light-heartedness into our programs, is to bring joy and enjoyment to people. So there’s definitely a line that we very carefully tread and are respectful of, because regardless of the culture or the country that we’re in, we never want to offend. We only want to inspire and bring joy to people. So, we always keep that in mind when we’re creating our show programs or even our competitive programs as well.

In keeping with the theme of authenticity, you’ve talked about how your “Heart of Glass” free dance doesn’t necessarily have characters or a storyline, but simply captures your emotions listening to the music.

Hawayek: Our free dance is very organic, it’s something that comes from deep within us. And I think that we will start shifting ourselves more and more to the organic [side] of our creativity. Sometimes, that may lead us in the direction of having a role [to] portray, but I think that we’ve proved not only to the world but to ourselves that we are capable of doing many different things.

Baker: Something Kaitlin said in an interview a few months ago: we are trying to allow the audience and the judges to go on a journey with us, as if they were going into a museum. When you go into a museum, you see beautiful pieces of art. Now, if you read [about] the artwork and exactly what’s happening within the story after you see the painting, you might be confused. Or, if you read the story before looking at the painting, it can be confusing because it’s not what you would imagine yourself. So something that Kaitlin and I are both latching on to is just being organic and allowing the music to speak to us.

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Jenny Simpson, most decorated U.S. miler, shifts focus with new Puma sponsorship

Jenny Simpson

Jenny Simpson, the most decorated U.S. female miler in history, plans to return to racing on Sunday with a new shoe sponsor, Puma.

Simpson, whose last race was the Cherry Blossom 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, according to World Athletics, will run what she called “a little rust-buster” at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

“My intention is to turn my focus to the roads,” Simpson, 36, wrote in an email. “I have some great PUMA spikes that I love so the track isn’t off the table. But my emphasis will be road racing.”

Last year’s Cherry Blossom was her first race longer than 5,000 meters, according to World Athletics. What are the chances she eventually moves up to the marathon distance?

“This new chapter is an exploration,” she answered. “I’m going to let the races, training, and coaching guide the next steps as they come. I know I can physically do it, it’s a matter of whether I can be great at it and my team and I will only go there if we think we can be competitive. So, let’s say for chances… 51% :)”

Simpson made her first Olympic team in 2008 in the 3000m steeplechase, then in 2012 and 2016 in the 1500m, earning a bronze medal in Rio. She is the lone U.S. woman to win a world 1500m title (2011) or an Olympic 1500m medal.

From 2007 through 2019, Simpson finished in the top three in one of the 1500m, 5000m or 3000m steeplechase at all 13 annual USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Last year, she was 10th in the Olympic Trials 1500m in a bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic 1500m runner in history, according to Olympedia.org.

Simpson focused much of her time this year helping her Colorado community heal and rebuild from a late December fire. She did not enter the USATF Outdoors for the first time since 2006.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, checklist complete, carries lessons into new World Cup season

Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin said she hit every possible statistical goal in the first 11 years of her Alpine skiing career. Keep that in mind as the storyline the next few seasons may turn to the World Cup wins record.

Shiffrin, who begins her 12th World Cup season in Soelden, Austria, in two weeks, is up to 74 victories on the circuit. The 27-year-old ranks third all-time behind Lindsey Vonn, who owns the women’s record of 82 wins, and Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who has the overall record of 86.

Shiffrin did rounds of interviews Thursday at the media day for her ski sponsor, Atomic. In one sitdown streamed by Atomic, she was asked, “Are you aiming for the record? … There’s just 12 left. Normally, winning 12 races, that’s a lot, but you already won 74, so it doesn’t sound that much anymore.”

“Just 12,” Shiffrin joked. “If you look at it like that, but that’s maybe oversimplification.” (Note greats including Americans Picabo Street and Julia Mancuso didn’t win 12 World Cups over a career.)

Then Shiffrin asked if the interviewer did in fact say 74 — “Yeah, you have 74,” the interviewer confirmed to Shiffrin, who sat between fellow stars Sofia Goggia of Italy and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway.

“Even after 74 … one race feels like a lot,” Shiffrin continued. “Twelve [wins] still feels like a large mountain to climb, for sure, but it’s step by step or race by race. If I just focus on what’s coming in the next couple weeks and then keep going from there, then we’ll see.”

From 2017 to 2019, Shiffrin won 11, 12 and 17 times on the World Cup. Her last three seasons were abbreviated after her father’s death, the COVID-19 pandemic and back problems. She still won an average of five races each year.

In an earlier interview Thursday, Shiffrin expressed confidence about her preseason form. She followed February’s Beijing Olympics, where her best individual finish was ninth, by bagging her fourth World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in the sport, crowning the best all-around skier.

“Finishing off [at last March’s World Cup Finals] in Meribel, that final race of the season, I was thinking, I could use a moment to breathe,” she said. “There was also this part of me that’s like, I kind of didn’t want this to be the last race. I was a little bit antsy to actually get going on the next season already.”

Shiffrin took less of a break than a year ago, spending 10 days in Maui. She had “really productive” training camps in Colorado, Switzerland and Chile and arrived back in Europe on Wednesday for the run-up to the World Cup opener on Oct. 22.

As always, the priority is keeping her slalom and giant slalom technique top-notch. As long as that’s flowing, Shiffrin feels comfortable branching into the speed events, starting with super-Gs. She plans to race both the slalom and GS at February’s world championships, then possibly the super-G with the combined less of a priority. The downhill is “fairly doubtful,” but she has a few months to make a final decision.

Of course, Shiffrin raced everything at the Olympics in February. In interviews last winter, she couldn’t quite explain why the greatest technical skier in history did not finish any of her three technical runs at the Games.

Shiffrin gave a detailed, two-and-a-half-minute answer when asked Thursday if she went back during this offseason to analyze those races. Or if she is brushing them off as an anomaly.

“Statistically, it’s an anomaly, but there was a lot of culminating factors that could have been involved,” she said.

In basic terms, she got on her inside ski in the opening GS and fell within 13 seconds — “a technical flaw that had a much higher consequence than it’s ever had in any other race that I’ve ever done.” In slalom, she had too much intensity, or too much speed, in a section that required more precision and skidded out within six seconds — “I was not giving anything away, and then I gave everything away.”

“There was less margin for error in Beijing because of the snow conditions,” said Shiffrin, who like every other racer hadn’t previously raced on that slope of manufactured snow. “I don’t think I maybe considered that enough in the moment when I was skiing to kind of reel it in sometimes when it would have been necessary. But I also wasn’t skiing to reel it in or make it to the finish. I was skiing to like, blow the course apart. I was going for it.”

She hopes to take that mentality into this season. In the spring and summer, she devoted more time to developing equipment that works better on softer snow, which is becoming more commonplace at World Cup venues given warmer temperatures.

“If you have a checklist of goals you want to achieve before you retire, actually, my checklist is complete,” she said. “If I had one, it would be complete. Somehow, I feel like I still have something left to accomplish, or faster skiing to do, so that’s kind of why I’m here. Hopefully I can remember that when there’s points in the season that feel stressful or pressure. There’s nothing that has to be done.”

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