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Ice dancing toward the 2018 Olympics

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker will glide, spin and lift their way through the national ice dancing championships this weekend, beginning a four-year competition cycle culminating in the selection of skaters for 2018 Olympic games in South Korea.

“This year is our first year ... No expectations. No pressure. We’re going to have a lot of fun. It’s the start of a long career for us,” said Hawayek of East Aurora.

The 18-year-old skater spoke by phone from Greensboro, N.C., where the U.S. Figure Skating Championships are underway. She and Baker, a Seattle native, will appear on a Saturday afternoon broadcast on NBC after finishing fourth in the short dance Friday.

The young pair, one of seven U.S. teams to win the World Junior Championships in ice dance, are just now making the transition to “senior” Olympic-level skating.

“This is the first U.S. Championships on the road to the 2018 Olympic Games, and the athletes are trying to get off to a strong start here to set themselves up for the push toward Korea,” said Renee Felton of U.S. Figure Skating’s media relations by email.

In their first program, Hawayek and Baker will dance a three-minute flamenco-style routine, a Spanish theme that all dancers must use.

On Saturday, their longer four-minute dance is more creative, set to music they picked from the Romeo and Juliet movie for the story’s mix of maturity and youthfulness, which represents where they are in life. The middle part of the program, in which Baker repeatedly hoists Hawayek in the air, is her favorite.

“It’s a little scary at first to learn them,” she said of the lifts. “You’re in the air on blades, which seems like a daunting, scary thing to do. It’s a very powerful thing. You feel energized. It’s very cool.”

Hawayek left East Aurora to finish high school outside Detroit, where there is an international community of ice skaters who live and practice.

“A lot of the best coaches migrated to the area ... Detroit is the place to be,” she said. “I don’t venture out that much. It’s pretty much the rink, school and back to the condo.”

Her parents take turns living with her, alternating weeks so that one is home with her younger brother. Her father is in the government affairs department of the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Botox and her mother is an advertising and project management consultant.

Both have flexible jobs that let them work from East Aurora or Detroit.

“It’s absolutely a challenge. It was a huge decision for our family,” said Kristin Hawayek, Kaitlin’s mother. “We couldn’t have done what we have done without the support of Kaitlin’s grandmother … It takes a community to raise an athlete of this caliber.”

Kaitlin Hawayek’s mother, who skated as a girl, got all of her children into skating. One son, Bradley, plays on the hockey team at SUNY Geneseo. Another, Nathan, plays for St. Francis High School in Hamburg.

“We all just kind of took a love for it that I don’t think she was expecting,” said Kaitlin Hawayek of skating. “We’re basically rink rats.”

She started out at local rinks and spent a year and a half at Nardin Academy before moving to Michigan four years ago. At Athens High School in Troy, she juggled skating practice and school, graduating summa cum laude and giving the commencement speech.

She is now studying biomedicine at Oakland University, another Detroit-area school, and thinking of becoming a neurosurgeon.

“The brain fascinates me,” she said. While there isn’t a direct connection between skating and neurology, she has found skating does require mental strength and focus, which leads her back to wanting to know more. “There’s so much about the brain that we don’t understand.”

Hawayek said her unusual early career has led to world travel – and the conclusion that taking an out-of-the-ordinary path in life is worth the trouble.

“Don’t be afraid go out of the boundaries and do something that people wouldn’t expect,” she said. “It’s opened my eyes ... Do something a little risky or out of the blue.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com