Sports

Family Ties Abound on U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team

By Lois Elfman

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc

In a first for U.S. figure skating, three members of the Olympic team are the children of Olympians. Pair skater Ashley Cain-Gribble and ice dancer Jean-Luc Baker along with men’s alternate Ilia Malinin followed their parents into the sport and are now hoping to match their parents’ accomplishments of skating on Olympic ice.

Peter Cain and his younger sister Elizabeth represented Australia in the 1980 Olympic Winter Games held in Lake Placid, New York. Moments after Cain-Gribble and her partner Timothy LeDuc finished their free skate at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and were announced as the U.S. Champions, Elizabeth phoned Peter, who is Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s coach, screaming with excitement.

“You never imagine that your own child is going to make it to the Olympics,” said Cain. “It’s been a long road and a lot of work and controlling the ups and downs. When we finally knew and all the scores came in, it was just ‘wow.’”

Elizabeth, who lives in Australia, was able to get a live feed of the U.S. Championships and watched with their 94-year-old mother. As soon as the last skaters went and the scores came up, there was the phone call.

When they competed at the Olympics, Peter was 21 and Elizabeth only 17. They had left Australia to train in the U.S. and their lives revolved around skating. Cain-Gribble’s route to the Olympics has taken a bit longer. She is a 26-year-old married woman, and her partner is 31. After some early success skating pairs, Cain-Gribble was without a partner for several years before teaming up with LeDuc. After winning the U.S. title in 2019, they struggled for a couple of years, but came on strong to secure their Olympic spot.

“This has been a five-year building process to get them to this point,” said Cain, who is based in Dallas where he coaches with his wife Darlene, a former ice dancer. His last trip to the Olympic Winter Games came in 2014 when he served as a technical specialist (part of the officiating panel).

Many people wonder how Cain and Cain-Gribble manage being father and daughter as well as coach and student, but they have always navigated it quite smoothly. The fact that he has guided her career makes this moment all the more precious. He will accompany the team to Beijing for the Games. 

“They have been training so well and we have prepared for so many scenarios,” said Cain. “[Nationals] was the calmest I think I’ve ever felt coaching them. I felt really positive both times when they stepped on the ice that they were going to get the mission done. So going into Beijing, it’s just a mater now of keeping that going ahead.”

Jean-Luc Baker and his ice dance partner Kaitlin Hawayek secured their spot on the Olympic team with their fourth consecutive bronze medal in senior dance. They have finished in the top 10 at the World Figure Skating Championships three times. With their Olympic berth, Baker is following in the ice etchings of his mother, Sharon Jones-Baker, who represented Great Britain in the 1988 Olympic Winter Games with partner Paul Ashkam. 

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker

Jones-Baker described the 2022 U.S. Championships as simultaneously exciting and dreadful for the stress. It should be noted that Baker’s father, Stephen Baker, competed against Peter Cain in the late 1970s when Peter and Elizabeth were allowed to take part in the British Championships.

“It’s unbelievable actually because ever since he started skating when he was small, he had a feel for the ice,” Jones-Baker said of Jean-Luc. “For him to be able to come so far and all the people along the way—everyone who’s touched these skaters and made the path for these guys to become Olympians—is fantastic. … We’re so proud.”

Baker’s parents always encouraged him to feel free when he skated and to be his own person, not constrained by expectations given his family background. Jones-Baker said her son had a natural ability as well as abundant creativity, which is readily apparent in the programs that he and Hawayek skate.

When the Bakers first put Jean-Luc in skating he wasn’t really that into it, so they put him in taekwondo and he excelled at that. Then he expressed interest in skating in their skating club’s ice show. Jones-Baker said in those performances his abilities were obvious. They put him into showcase competitions, which are more focused on performance, and he won medals. He didn’t really like jumping, so eventually they found him a partner and he started ice dancing. 

“We coached him until he was 18,” said Jones-Baker. They didn’t have any other teams, so they started the process of him finding new coaches. After he graduated high school, he moved to Detroit to train with Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova. A few years ago, Baker and Hawayek began training in Montreal with Marie France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. 

“I didn’t share too much [about my Olympic experience] because I didn’t want to put too much pressure on him” said Jones-Baker. “[The Olympics] was his goal and as long as he brought that up it was cool.”

Baker said he always knew that his mother competed at the Olympics and his dream was to do the same. He looks forward to sharing stories with her after the Games, knowing not many parents and children have that bond. During the years his parents were his coaches, they encouraged him to be his own person in skating.

“It used to make me so proud when I was in school to say that my mom was an Olympian,” said Baker, who hesitates to call himself an Olympian until he sets blades to ice in Beijing. “Assuming that all goes well, I’ll be able to call myself one.”

As this will be Hawayek and Baker’s first Olympic experience, they have no expectations of what it will entail. Given the tight health protocols, it probably won’t be as festive as what his mother experienced. “Taking it all in, whatever that may be, will do,” he said. 

Unable to travel home to Seattle for Christmas, Baker gave his mother her present when he saw her at the 2022 U.S. Championships. He was at a vintage shop in Montreal and found an authentic Calgary ’88 crewneck sweater that all the athletes got, but she’d lost hers at some point. 

“It was just wild that as I’m pursuing my dream, being able to see…an authentic Calgary Olympics sweater,” Baker said. “I gave it to her at Nationals and later in the week I was named to the team for the U.S.

“It’s been a phenomenal journey so far.”