It’s thrilling enough to go to the Olympics, but it’s even more fulfilling to be able to watch your son compete. For Sharon and Stephen Baker, that dream turned into a reality.
Speaking at the March 16 Lynnwood Chamber Luncheon, Lynnwood ice dancing coach Stephen Baker described his experience watching his son in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, as well as almost going himself.
“I’m going to try and cram 20 years into 25 minutes, so bear with me,” he said.
Stephen didn’t mean to become a figure skater. As a young boy, he was dragged by his parents to his sister’s figure skating lessons, and eventually was forced onto the ice himself. He fell in love with it almost instantly, and quickly surpassed his sister, who soon lost interest in the sport.
Stephen almost made it to the Olympics himself. An alternate for the 1976 games, he had his bags packed and sitting by the door. All he needed was a phone call.
“I was just waiting for that phone call,” he said. “And sadly, it never came.”
Years later, Stephen was working as the general manager of an ice rink that 1988 Olympian Sharon Jones skated at. One night at an ice rink party, the two connected, and the rest is history.
Now, the Bakers spend their days coaching at the Seattle Skating Club, which trains skaters both at the Lynnwood Ice Arena and Mountlake Terrace’s Olympicview Ice Arena, and cheering on their son, Jean-Luc.
Stephen talked about the hard work that Jean-Luc — who grew up in Edmonds — has put in his entire life to get where he is today. That includes a strict daily schedule that governs Jean-Luc’s physical fitness to ensure top performance.
From Monday to Friday, Jean-Luc’s day starts with a 30-minute warm up followed by three one-hour ice sessions. Between each session, Jean-Luc gets a 15-minute break. In that 15 minutes, you can find him scarfing down peanut butter.
“Why peanut butter?” asked Stephen. “I have no idea. But it gives him energy.”
After his morning sessions, Jean-Luc’s afternoons are spent doing more physical activities such as ballet, pilates and general stretching.
Saturdays are for body recovery, such as physical therapy, jacuzzi time and full-body massages. Sundays are dedicated as a mental recovery day. The focus is on decompressing and enjoying hobbies.
“How my son can decompress by blowing people up in a video game, I do not know,” Stephen said.
Not only has Jean-Luc’s fitness training been strictly managed, but so has his diet, his social schedule and the products he uses.
Many ointments, medications and salves have been banned for athletes due to certain ingredients. Even medical inhalers need special permission by officials due to the steroids in them. Because of this, athletes are subject to random drug tests at any point throughout the day.
Stephen said the rules are so strict that even kids as young as 10 or 11 in the sport have to be drug tested. He recalled Jean-Luc as a young teenager having random, scary-looking men walk up to him before competitions and making him get drug tested before going on the ice.
It’s something Stephen said people eventually get accustomed to as part of the athlete’s life.
Fast forwarding to 2022, Jean-Luc and his partner Kaitlin Hawayek placed third in the U.S. Championships, landing them the final spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
While people were congratulating Jean-Luc, he kept telling them he wasn’t an Olympian, his father recalled.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m not an Olympian until I get there,’” Stephen said. “‘And right now, my biggest competitor is COVID-19.’”
Every athlete set to compete in the Olympic Games was tested for COVID-19 daily for three weeks. If an athlete got a positive test, they were out of the games completely, with officials not wanting to risk an outbreak.
Stephen said Jean-Luc was most concerned about staying healthy so he would actually get to compete. Stephen empathized with his son, hoping his dream would not be taken away from him.
“It’s like the holy grail: The Olympics,” Stephen said. “I almost got all the way and then I fell off. The stars just didn’t align and I didn’t get to go. And that’s OK.”
Luckily, Jean-Luc remained healthy and took the ice as an Olympian.
“One of the things my wife told me, I don’t know personally because I’m the loser of the family,” Stephen joked. “The atmosphere is incredible. People have worked their entire life to get here.”
Stephen said athletes are told exactly what they can bring to the Olympic Games: their skates, toiletries and some underwear. The rest is provided to them, including socks. Athletes are banned from wearing any clothing that does not represent their country while in the Olympic Village.
Jean-Luc and Hawayek placed 11th overall in the 2022 Olympic games.
Although athletes have worked hard their entire lives to compete at the Olympics, Stephen said this is when the real hard part begins. It’s called “Athlete’s Down.”
“You’ve trained for 20-plus years to get to this point, to get to the Olympics,” Stephen said. “And then suddenly you’re home and it’s all over and you’re back down here at square one.”
Because the adjustment of coming home can be so tough for these athletes, the Olympics have created a “buddy system” to help them get their bearings. Older Olympians are paired with a returning athlete. They bond with the younger athletes and help them adjust to the “normal” everyday they’re coming back to. Whether the athlete is going right back into training for the next Olympics, or hanging up their skates for good, the buddy system helps each athlete relate to someone who has gone through the same Athlete’s Down and learn ways to cope with it.
According to Stephen, Jean-Luc’s skating career is far from over. He’s currently in Montreal training for his next competition. After that, he will travel to France for Nationals and Japan to perform on Stars on Ice. Then he will return to the U.S. for a few weeks for a national tour of Stars on Ice.
“He’ll be in Seattle for a day or two, so maybe we’ll get to see him for an hour,” Stephen said.
When asked if Jean-Luc ever used any of his prize money to pay his parents back for all the financial and moral support they’ve given him, Stephen laughed.
“He has promised to pay us back,” he said. “But he also promised to take out the trash when he got home.”
— By Lauren Reichenbach