BEIJING (AP) — After missing out on the U.S. figure skating team four years ago in Pyeongchang, Kaitlin Hawayak and Jean-Luc Baker made a brutally difficult but carefully crafted decision that they hoped would land them in the Beijing Olympics.
The American ice dancers broke with their longtime coaches, led by the respected choreographer Pasquale Camerlengo, and moved their training base to Canada. There, they began to work under the exacting eye of two-time Olympians Marie-France Dubreuil and her husband, Patrice Lauzon, at the renowned Ice Academy of Montreal.
Suddenly, Hawayak and Baker were surrounded by world champions and Olympic medalists at a factory of elite ice dancers — the most dominant school in figure skating, even more successful than that of controversial Russian women's coach Eteri Tutberidze. And it forced Hawayk and Baker to take their craft to a level they never before thought possible.
It worked, too. They made it to the Beijing Games, where the duo will get to perform when individual competition begins with the rhythm dance Saturday night at Capital Indoor Stadium.
The bad news? Most of their absurdly accomplished teammates also will be there.
“When we first stepped on the ice in Montreal,” Hawayak explained, “you are there to be your best but also be a supportive team member. That's what we are. We're all teammates in our camp. And it makes moments like this even more special for us, knowing that we're able to lean into each other when we get to competition.”
Sure, Hawayak and Baker will be representing their country first and foremost this weekend. So will Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue and the third American duo, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, all of whom train in Montreal.
But they also will be competing for their closely knit school, which has produced an astounding 10 of the 23 teams at the Winter Games, including the favorites to win gold, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.
Hubbell and Donohue, who were fourth in Pyeongchang, have a shot to stand atop the podium after winning a pair of world silver medals and the Grand Prix Final over the past four years. So do Chock and Bates, who were eighth at the 2014 Sochi Games and ninth in Pyeongchang but recently dethroned Hubbell and Donohue as national champs.
The biggest competition outside the Ice Academy of Montreal figures to be Russian dancers Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov and the Canadian duo of Piper Gillis and Paul Poirier, who train with a different coach in Toronto.
“We have our goal to be on that Olympic podium. We think we're more than capable of achieving that goal,” Hubbell said, “but you see it every time you go out for competition: You have to deliver on that day. You still have to perform.”
Hubbell and Donohue and teammates Chock and Bates are already assured of at least one medal from Beijing, though they are still waiting to find out the color. They helped the U.S. claim silver in the team competition, but it could be upgraded to gold should the Russian winners be stripped for a doping infraction.
Montana-born skater Tim Koleto and his wife and partner, Misato Komatsubara, likewise could be upgraded from bronze to silver for Japan. And as you might guess, Koleto and Komatsubara also train at the Ice Academy of Montreal.
As if to drive home the international flavor fostered there, Dubreuil and Lauzon also have competing in Beijing the Chinese team of Wang Shiyue and Liu Xinyu; the Spanish duo of Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz; the Canadian pair of Nikolaj Sorensen and Laurence Fournier Beaudry; and British skaters Lewis Gibson and Lilah Fear.
In other words, Dubreuil and Lauzon are going to be busy over the next few days.
“Skating is a pretty niche sport and everybody knows everybody,” Hawayak said, “but there's something collective and universal we all go through together, whether that's training, competing. I think it extends all of us to have an opportunity to have people to lean into through experience, and in particular the Ice Academy of Montreal — they foster such a strong environment that's based off the foundation of people that leave their egos at the door of the rink.”
Dubreuil and Lauzon are accustomed to the spotlight of success. They coached Canadian dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to the second of their two individual Olympic gold medals with a record score at the Pyeongchang Games.
But the sheer number of elite skaters, and the talent level, that Dubreuil and Lauzon are watching over in Montreal has only grown in the intervening years. Just consider the high-level NHK Trophy event in Japan, when Papadakis and Cizeron shattered world records for the rhythm dance, free dance and total score.
The astronomical marks still stand three years later, though nobody would be surprised to see them finally fall in Beijing.
If they do, there's a good chance Dubreuil and Lauzon will have had a hand in it.
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