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Driven to compete<br> Nardin freshman Kaitlin Hawayek commutes between Buffalo and Detroit to pursue elite-level training in figure skating. Now, she gets to strut her stuff in the U.S. nationals

The Hawayeks still use an alarm - not that they necessarily need one. For a year, they've followed the same predawn routine.

"Some people may think we're insane," says the father, Jon Hawayek, "but we know this is what we have to do."

Friday morning, mom or dad wakes up at 4 a.m. with their 14-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, ambling out soon after. Around 5, they climb into the family's new Jetta Diesel -- which has already accumulated 30,000 miles since May -- and Kaitlin goes back to sleep.

With a parent at the wheel, they leave East Aurora for Detroit via Canada.

On a good day, it takes five hours. Through a blizzard, maybe six or a little more. Each trip, they reach the same Tim Hortons halfway through, Kaitlin wakes up and the employees always ask the same question.

"How's the training going?"

That's because in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Kaitlin Hawayek is pursuing Olympic gold. Commuting to the prestigious Detroit Skating Club -- while still attending school as a freshman at Nardin Academy -- Hawayek is going to extraordinary lengths to chase her dream.

Her journey in ice dancing truly begins at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C., which start Saturday and run through Jan. 30. With a strong performance, she can earn a spot on the U.S. national team.

Another Western New Yorker, Jordan Bauth of Lancaster and the Jamestown Skating Club, will compete in the nationals in the novice ladies event. Bauth, 13, finished second in the Eastern Sectionals, and was first in the free skate.

Not many high school students sacrifice all of their free time like Hawayek. But to her, it's all worth it. Someday, she wants to represent Western New York on the world's biggest stage. Becoming a national champion, with partner Michael Bramante, next week would be one heck of a start.

"My main goal is to win nationals," Hawayek said. "That would be fantastic. We could move onto bigger and better things like internationals. Altogether, I'd love to make it to the Olympics."

After the pit stop at Tim Hortons, Hawayek stays awake. She needs to. With a backpack full of books and notes, she finishes as much homework as possible before rolling into Detroit.

From there, she meets up with Bramante and gets back to work.

Hawayek began figure skating at age 4. Her passion grew and, admittedly "always dramatic" as a kid, she gravitated toward the more spontaneous ice dancing.

Her craft is a balance of precision and free spirit. Ice dancing is figure skating without the jumping and with more, well, fun. The choreography knows no limits. Everything from ballroom dancing to ballet to modern dancing encapsulates Kaitlin's training. Just recently, Kaitlin laughs, her neck got sore jiving to "Whip my Hair."

Unlike mainstream team sports, she can't hone her skills at an elite level in Buffalo. So Detroit it is.

Last year alone, the Hawayeks made 50 round trips to the unofficial skating capital of America. Each week, Kaitlin spends three to four days in East Aurora and three to four in Detroit. Her entire month of January has been spent in Detroit training for nationals.

There is no governing body in figure skating that funds this lifestyle. Anybody else in Kaitlin's shoes would probably live with a host family in Detroit. That's what most of her skating peers, dispatched from all over the world, have done.

But the Hawayeks value family. They wanted to stick together, at all costs. With two sons heavily involved in hockey, they're always on the move.

At first, the Hawayeks had an extended-stay deal at a hotel in Detroit. New management took over and prices soared so the Hawayeks decided to buy a one-bedroom apartment.

It's cozy, "nothing grandiose," as Jon says. On this day, he's sitting alone at their home away from home. Sitting at the kitchen table with his laptop and cell phone, Dad works while daughter trains.

"It could be a real grind but the value of everything outweighs the tough part about being away from family, the driving and everything," said Jon Hawayek, who heads up a state government affairs group for a pharmaceutical company.

Added her mom, Kirstin, "She has a really unusual work ethic for a kid that age. She sacrificed a lot for it."

Kaitlin went through three partners, including one from Russia that lived with the family for eight months, before finding Bramante.

Together, the duo has found instant success.

They started training together in June and went on to win silver in all novice events at the 2010 Ice Dance Championships. Then, in November, they won gold at the U.S. Midwestern Sectional Championships to qualify for this coming week's national competition.

Hawayek's coach in Detroit, Pasquale Camerlengo from Italy, has seen the sport's best. With Kaitlin, there's a rare desire, a hunger that defies her age.

"It's never enough for her," Camerlengo said. "She always wants to go farther and improve more. Whenever she's doing something, she's a perfectionist. That's a great quality for a sport like ours because that's what it's all about.

"The potential is big, very big."

Whenever she has a free moment, Hawayek is in the books. On the Detroit road trips, in the stands at her brother's hockey games, after a long day of training, whenever. Her homework often faxed to Detroit, she still carries a 99 average and honor-roll credentials.

"She's intense about what she does. She's an intense kid," Nardin principal Rebecca Reeder said. "We saw her work ethic from the moment she came here."

Other parents can't fathom the drive. They ask Kirstin Hawayek all the time where the motivation for a 600-mile commute comes from. Part of it is Kaitlin wants to succeed for two of her old coaches in Buffalo that passed away, Janice Smith and Peter Buch. Both deaths "profoundly impacted" Kaitlin, her mother says.

In general, Kaitlin is driven to represent Western New York someday.

Still, shouldn't there be a shred of laziness, an occasional lull in energy? There are concerns Kaitlin may be overworking herself, that maybe this is too much. That's why at the end of last summer, Kirstin asked Kaitlin a pointed question.

"Has it been worth the sacrifice?" Mom asked.

Kaitlin paused.

"I've never once looked at this as a sacrifice," she answered. "I really, really love what I'm doing."

So, no, she is not second-guessing herself. This isn't work.

"It really doesn't get old," Kaitlin said. "I've made some great friends. It's always an enjoyment to come to the rink and spend time with people who share the same goals as you."

Every once in a while, dad will sneak away from the apartment to watch his daughter at practice. He gazes at the three sheets of ice, surrounded by pictures of Olympians that have trained in this very rink.

And he can't help himself. That could be Kaitlin someday. The long drives, the sacrifice, the overall commitment are all worth it.

"I know that she envisions herself someday," Jon says, "at one of the podiums in the Olympics."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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