When Jean-Luc Baker was born with clubfoot, a doctor gave his parents a grim prognosis.
“He said I would never walk and be in great pain my whole life with it, and they weren’t vibrating with it,” said Baker, who grew up in Edmonds and graduated from Kamiak High School. . “They were like, ‘No way.’ “
No way, indeed. Although he was born with his left foot “almost 180 degrees backward”, Baker not only persevered, but thrived.
At age 7 he earned a black belt in taekwondo and 20 years later found himself on one of sport’s biggest stages, preparing to compete with his partner Kaitlin Hawayek in ice dancing at the Olympics in Beijing.
The competition takes place on February 12 and 14.
“It’s so exciting, and it’s something I’ve dreamed of being on the Team USA Olympic team for a very, very long time,” said Baker, who won four bronze medals at the national championships. . “I only saw it from the outside, and it’s so cool to have a different perspective and be on the other side.”
None of this would have been possible if Baker’s parents hadn’t sought a second opinion on his clubfoot.
The new doctor had an idea: “They were tapping my foot every week to try and get it to roll back and for the first six months of my life I was in a cast,” said England-born Jean-Luc. and moved to Edmonds when he was 4.
It stunted the growth of his left foot, which is now “a size 7, and the right is a 9,” Baker said.
This size difference is the only remaining sign that he once had a clubfoot.
Baker was put on the ice at age 2 and was a natural. Her mother, Sharon Jones Baker, competed for Great Britain in ice dancing at the 1988 Calgary Olympics and her father Peter competed in pairs at the 1976 World Junior Figure Skating Championships.
“But I really didn’t like it at first,” said Jean-Luc, whose parents coach the Seattle Skating Club at Olympicview Arena in Mountlake Terrace.
In addition to taekwondo, Baker played baseball when he was younger and participated in gymnastics. His attitude towards skating changed when he was 7 years old and the skating club was having a show. His mother asked him if he wanted to be part of it.
“Being part of that spotlight and feeling the recognition — not of what I was doing but of seeing that I could excite people and feel things,” he said. “Basically, I like to be the center of attention and I didn’t mind having a spotlight on me. I just really liked playing.
Baker was drawn to ice dancing “because there’s a lot of freedom of expression, and ice dancing is more about creating moments and telling stories”.
“It’s absolutely athletic, 100 percent, but it’s not like we’re doing jumps and throws per se,” he said. “But we have a lot more opportunities to be expressive, and there’s more finesse in what we do – not that there isn’t finesse in the other disciplines. But it definitely allows for more freedom.
Baker teamed for years with Joylyn Yang, and the duo finished sixth in ice dance in the junior division at the 2011 nationals.
Baker was encouraged to start training in Detroit, where the top ice dance teams were based, and the day after his graduation ceremony at Kamiak in 2012 he was on his way.
“I knew that to take the next step in my career, I had to move,” he said.
He met Hawayek in Detroit.
“USA Figure Skating knew both of us…and finally said, ‘You should try Kaitlin,'” he said. “We gave it a try, and in about five minutes I knew we worked well together.”
Ten years later, they still are.
“It’s like a wedding,” he says. “It’s a business relationship with someone who is also my best friend. What we do is so emotional, with high emotions, high intensity and high adrenaline. We have a high, high, high level of respect for each other.
They won gold at the 2014 World Junior Championships and gold at the 2018 Four Continents Championships. They have three top-10 finishes at the World Championships, but perhaps their most significant result was the medal bronze last month at the nationals, which helped secure the Olympic berth.
The U.S. Olympic team was chosen based on their performance throughout the season, but with Baker and Hawayek missing several previous events as Hawayek recovered from a concussion, they likely needed a spot among the top three at the Nationals to secure a berth.
They were fourth going into the free skate, so the pressure was on.
“We had to deliver in that free dance if we were going to solidify our spot on the Olympic team,” Baker said. “We had to make sure we put in one of the best performances possible at that time.”
Performing a selection of Chopin songs, “that’s exactly what we were able to do,” Baker said. This put them ahead of Michael Parsons and Caroline Green.
The top two American teams at nationals — and the other two American teams at the Olympics — are Evan Bates and Madison Chock, and Zachary Donohu and Madison Hubbell.
This will be Bates’ fourth Olympic appearance and Chock’s third. Donohu and Hubbel finished fourth at the 2018 Olympics.
“Anything can happen – the ice is slippery – but we’ve never beaten any of the (other American teams) in any event, so to do it on an Olympic stage wouldn’t be realistic, but again, anything can happen,” said Baker, who is good friends with members of those two teams.
Regardless, Baker said it was an honor to be part of the team “with these four amazing people.”
Baker doesn’t come home often — “I miss Dick’s Burgers and Pike Place Market” — but he feels a strong connection to where he grew up. He said he was getting messages from people he hadn’t heard from in years, including students and teachers at Kamiak, Harbor Pointe Middle School and Picnic Point Elementary School.
“I feel the support of everyone in the community where I come from,” he said. “I hear from people I haven’t heard from in so long. … I so appreciate the support I’ve received over the years.
Baker’s parents travel to Buffalo, New York to watch the Olympics with Hawayek’s parents.
Baker said her mother only shared a few anecdotes about her Olympic experience. Soon they will have this experience in common.
“She didn’t want to tell me how amazing her experience at the Olympics was and make me want to go to the Olympics because of her experience,” he said. “She wanted it to be something I wanted. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, but after my experience, I really want to have time to talk to her about it.