When Jean-Luc Baker was born with a club foot, a doctor gave his parents a grim prognosis.
“He said I would never walk and that I would have a lot of trouble throughout my whole life with it, and they weren’t vibing with that,” said Baker, who grew up in Edmonds and graduated from Kamiak High school. “They were like, ‘No way.’ ”
No way, indeed. Despite being 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, he has found himself on one of sports’ biggest stages, getting ready to compete with partner Kaitlin Hawayek in ice dancing at the Beijing Olympics.
The competition is Feb. 12 and Feb. 14.
“It is so exciting, and it is something I’ve been dreaming of — to be part of the Team USA Olympic team — for a long, long time,” said Baker, who has won four bronze medals at the national championships. “I have only seen it from the outside, and it’s so cool to have a different perspective and to be on the other side.”
None of it might have been possible if Baker’s parents had not sought a second opinion about his club foot.
The new doctor had an idea: “They were taping my foot on a weekly basis to try to force it back and for the first six months of my life, I was in a cast,” said Jean-Luc, who was born in England and moved to Edmonds when he was 4.
That stunted the growth of his left foot, which is now “size 7-ish, and the right is a 9,” Baker said.
That difference in size is the only remaining sign that he once had a club foot.
Baker was put on the ice at age 2, and was a natural. His mother, Sharon Jones Baker, competed for Great Britain in ice dancing in the 1988 Calgary Olympics and father Stephen competed in pairs in the 1976 World Junior Figure Skating Championships.
“But I really didn’t love it in the beginning,” said Jean-Luc, whose parents coach 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 about skating changed when he was 7 and the skating club was putting on a show. His mother asked if he wanted to be in it.
“Just being part of that spotlight, and feeling the recognition — not of what I was doing but seeing I could make people get excited and feel things,” he said. “Basically, I like being the center of attention, and I didn’t mind having a spotlight on me. I just really liked performing.”
Baker was drawn to ice dancing “because there is a lot of freedom of expression, and ice dancing is more about creating moments and storytelling.”
“It is absolutely athletic, 100%, but it’s not like we are doing jumps and throws, per se,” he said. “But we have significantly more opportunity to be expressive, and there is more finesse to what we do — not that there isn’t finesse in the other disciplines. But it definitely permits for more freedom.”
Baker paired for years with Joylyn Yang, and the duo finished sixth in ice dancing in the junior division at the 2011 national championships.
Baker was encouraged to begin training in Detroit, where the top ice-dancing teams were based, and the morning after his graduation ceremony at Kamiak in 2012, he was on his way.
“I knew to take the next step in my career, I had to move,” he said.
He met Hawayek in Detroit.
“U. S. Figure Skating knew about us both … and eventually said, ‘You should try out with Kaitlin,’ ” he said. “We had a tryout, and in about five minutes, I knew that we were working well together.”
Ten years later, they still are.
“It’s like a marriage,” he said. “It’s a business working relationship with someone who is also my best friend. What we do is so emotional, with high emotions and high intensity and high adrenaline. We have a high, high, high level of respect for one another.”
They won gold in the 2014 Junior World Championships and gold in the 2018 Four Continent Championships. They have finished in the top 10 at the World Championships three times, but perhaps their most important finish was the bronze last month at the national championships, which helped secure the Olympic berth.
The U.S. Olympic team was picked based on performance over the whole season, but with Baker and Hawayek missing several earlier events while Hawayek recovered from a concussion, they likely needed a top-three finish at nationals to get a spot.
They were fourth heading into the free skate, so the pressure was on.
“We had to deliver in that free dance if we wanted to solidify our spot on the Olympic team,” Baker said. “We had to make sure we put out one of the best performances that we possibly could for that moment.”
Performing to a selection of songs from Chopin, “that is exactly what we were able to do,” Baker said. That allowed them to vault ahead of Michael Parsons and Caroline Green.
The top two American teams at nationals — and the other two U.S. teams at the Olympics — are Evan Bates and Madison Chock, and Zachary Donohu and Madison Hubbell.
This will be the fourth Olympics appearance for Bates and the third for Chock. Donohu and Hubbel were fourth in the 2018 Olympics.
“Anything can happen — ice is slippery — but we have never beaten either of the (other U.S.) teams in any event, so doing it on an Olympic stage would not be realistic, but again anything can happen,” said Baker, who is good friends with the members of those two teams.
No matter what, Baker said it’s an honor to be part of the team “with those four amazing people.”
Baker doesn’t get home often — “I miss Dick’s hamburgers and Pike Place Market” — but he feels a strong connection to where he grew up. He said he has been getting messages from people he has not heard from for years, including students and teachers from Kamiak, Harbour Pointe Middle School and Picnic Point Elementary.
“I feel the support from everyone in the community from where I am from,” he said. “I am hearing from people I have not heard from in so long. … I just appreciate so much the support I have gotten over the years.”
Baker’s parents are traveling to Buffalo, New York, to watch the Olympics with Hawayek’s parents.
Baker said his mother has only shared a few anecdotes of her Olympic experience. Soon, they will have that experience in common.
“She didn’t want to tell me how amazing her experience was at the Olympics and have 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 many questions, but after my experience I really want to have time to ask her about it.”