The Penn Skater: World Campus Student Will Go For Gold In Beijing Olympics

There are 6,788 miles over earth and ocean between Beijing, China, and Dear Old State. Yet for Olympic athlete and World Campus student Kaitlin Hawayek, home is quite literally always on the brain.

“I always try to bring my Penn State hat with me wherever I go,” Hawayek said. “And I’ll bring it with me to Beijing for sure.”

Balanced both on and off the ice, Hawayek remains dedicated to her education as a global athlete, enrolled in the World Campus psychology program while also pursuing her skating career. Beaming, brilliant, and bright, the ice dancer possesses inherent Penn State values in all walks of life, representing not only Team USA in Beijing 2022, but the unity of blue and white is ever-present around the globe.

“There’s definitely a really strong sense of community that I feel within Penn State. That was something that was evident right away,” Hawayek said.

Born in Aurora Falls, New York in 1996, Hawayek began her career as a performance dancer and freestyle skating student. Gaining the skills under an intense training schedule, Hawayek eventually relocated to Montreal, Quebec to train with her skating partner, Jean-Luc Baker.

For two decades, Hawayek has earned the title of champion time and time again. From becoming Junior World Champions in 2014 to placing repeatedly in global competitions, such as the 2021 ISU Challenger Series, 2021 ISU Four Continents Championships, and 2020 ISU Grand Prix: Skate America, Hawayek and her partner have consistently taken the figure skating world by storm.

While the duo served as Team Alternates in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, their lives were changed forever when this dynamic team qualified for Beijing at the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville, Tennessee.

“It’s a hard moment to put into words,” Hawayek said.

Experiencing this life-altering moment represents the dream come true for any global athlete. But like any true champion, Hawayek conquered the challenge of describing the momentous occasion, landing on a conclusion just as gracefully as she glides across the ice.

With an Olympic dream on the line, Hawayek and Baker entered the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships ready for the world’s stage. With their free dance performance to be the final factor of the decision, they both knew the moment meant everything. Music on, skates laced, and minds focused, the pair trusted their training and soared in scores. Finishing in third place as qualifiers for Team USA, Hawayek and Baker made their dream a reality in a few short minutes of perfected passion.

“[It was] just being able to put out the performance that we did…where we felt like we left everything on the table and there was nothing more we could give,” Hawayek said.

From video footage of the soulful piece to win their dream, one can see just how special this career-defining performance was. Elaborating on her inspiration for programs like this, Hawayek expands her commitment both on and off the ice.

In tandem with the pressure of global competition at Olympic levels, ice dancing requires both precise physical accuracy and intense self-expression. Crafting a story of emotion while flawlessly executing complex tricks differentiates the activity as inherently reflective.

Often overlooked for athletes conquering the challenge with such grace, this duality of the sport tackles the complexity of the human spirit in more ways than one, all within a four-minute program designed to lay the soul bare.

“I’d say something universal that I try to express when I’m on the ice is the ability to be vulnerable and express emotions that people might not feel comfortable expressing in everyday life,” Hawayek said.

Striving for excellence like she’s done her entire life, the Olympic one-to-watch outlined an invaluable message of self-expression with the same precision personally utilized for athletic and artistic bliss.

“I think we’re all kind used to trying to stay within a box, only showing certain emotions to a certain level that’s acceptable to society, so the thing that I love about ice dancing and being able to act within my sport is to be able to jump in deep,” she said, “…to complex emotions that require a little bit more of opening up a door, or unlocking something deeper inside.”

Hawayek and Baker work closely with an acting coach for artistic integrity behind the scenes. This practice requires an even greater level of preparation in addition to training as world-class athletes.

Courtesy of Lynn Plage, U.S. Figure Skating Media

Individually imagined for both artistic freedom and competitive value, each performance means far more than a final score for both Hawayek and Baker.

“I find that each program is different in terms of true inspiration. We really create a story for each program, which we may not make evident to an audience,” Hawayek explained. “But in creating a story and a plotline within our four minutes of skating, it gives us a lot more investment into what we are doing.”

In going that extra mile to fully pursue her passion, Hawayek demonstrates the brilliance and dedication needed for an Olympic athlete. It is these qualities that led her to pursue higher education within the World Campus program while preparing to go for the gold. With this in mind, the ice dancer elaborated on just how her own values aligned with the integrity of a Penn State degree.

“Going above and beyond—that’s something that I was intrigued with Penn State, to begin with,” she said

After previously struggling to find a program that allowed for both high education and high success in her sport, Hawayek remains grateful for the flexibility and quality that differentiates Penn State World Campus from other online degrees. Resources needed for quality education were always available at her fingertips.

“There was a little of that sense of above and beyond that I noticed right away when I signed up and enrolled at World Campus,” Hawayek said.

That combination of stability, flexibility, and value within World Campus is another differentiator for Hawayek as she pursues both her ice-dancing career and psychology degree. As an athlete in her position, peace of mind within her educational goals is a necessity.

“When I started taking classes, I could create my skating schedule and work my school schedule into that skating schedule rather than vice versa,” she said.

In scheduling classes around training, Hawayek also emphasized the importance of working with her skating partner, Baker, off the ice as well.

“It’s not only challenging being an elite athlete, but it’s also challenging being an elite athlete in a pair or duo sport,” she said. “I can’t just expect my partner to bend over backward to meet the demands of a school schedule because we’re equals in this sport. We have to do things together.”

Emphasizing this deep respect between world-class athletes, Hawayek emphasized that the phenomenal partnership transformed childhood dreams into lifelong success for both parties.

“It was kind of a pipe dream for many years,” Hawayek said. “I don’t think I really said it with intention and meaning or legitimacy until I had gotten started with my skating partner, Jean-Luc.”

Courtesy of Lynn Plage, U.S. Figure Skating Media

After connecting with Baker through their federation, Hawayek quickly learned that Baker would match her drive and energy perfectly. The two quickly dominated the junior level, becoming seventh in the world within a few years of partnering.

“At that point, we both realized that maybe the Olympics was something more attainable than just a little kid’s dream,” Hawayek said.

Dreams within reach, Hawayek and Baker wasted no time in climbing competitively. As training hours intensified and days became longer, the pair relied on their incredible connection and communication style on the road to the Olympics. They thrive off of respect, compassion, and understanding.

“We consider it a sliding glass door that we can always open from both sides for one another. That has allowed us to really excel in our sport and because of that, excel in our friendship as well,” she said. “[Baker is] my best friend. It’s hard to imagine one day down the line not being with him and skating with him every day.”

Courtesy of Lynn Plage, U.S. Figure Skating Media

Continuing her reflection on the human connection for athletic excellence, Hawayek revealed another key to her success — her parents, Kirstin and Jonathan, and two brothers, Bradley and Nathan.

“My family has been instrumental with everything I’ve done. I’m so fortunate to have grown up with a really amazing, tight-knit family,” she said.

Finding inspiration close to home, Kaitlin quickly stood out as a freestyle skater. At the urging of coaches and family, she discovered this true passion and hilariously reflected on the transition to ice dance.

“I was always a bit of a drama queen, as my dad told me,” she said. “I found that ice dancing really called to me. What really differentiates ice dancing is that there’s… a dialogue. There’s a big component of acting and communicating,” she shared.

With roots in performing arts such as tap, jazz, and ballet from the age of two, Hawayek enjoyed the theatrical element of the sport as a child. Now, she reinforces her identity as both an artist and athlete by remembering her core values. For this talent, creativity energizes and ignites performance passion.

“Creativity is endless, an intangible value that you can always continue to explore and dive into,” Hawayek said. To protect mental health and stay passionate, the ice dancer revealed ingenious truth.

Courtesy of Lynn Plage, U.S. Figure Skating Media

“There’s always going to be difficult variables that change the way I’m feeling going into a single day of training, so I try to respect that within my body and within my mind,” she said. “When I go into a day feeling really tired or when my mindset is feeling a little bit saturated, I try to kind of pivot and find a different way to feel creative within my skating.”

Continuing with the kind of brilliance only attained by a seasoned professional, Hawayek revealed honest truth, adding another piece to the dynamic puzzle of being a champion.

“In that sense, one day never feels the same. There’s never a monotony within skating, and it always inspires me,” she said.

With inspiration all around her, Hawayek elaborated on another creative outlet for passion, as well as its implications for inclusion in modern sports. An asset to creating the electric programs for the audience, costumes vitalize her sport and widen the horizons of preconceived gender norms for athletes.

“Costuming is never about femininity or masculinity or expressing a gender. It’s about expressing an emotion,” Hawayek explained with ease and understanding. 

Across the world’s stages in elite competition, both Hawayek and Baker have challenged traditional athletic roles in their diverse performance pieces.

“I’m really proud of the fact that U.S. Figure Skating is the first national-governing body to have an Olympic athlete that is non-binary competing in the games,” Hawayek said. “I’m good friends with them and really proud of them.”

In joining Team USA just in time for this historic landmark, Kaitlin is even more thankful to represent the nation.

Additionally, by furthering the idea of inclusivity through gender-neutral costuming, Hawayek explained her philosophy beyond the conventional gendered dress.

“Color has such a connection with our emotion and our feeling, and finding the perfect color or band of colors really intrigues me,” she revealed.

From scouring stores in Montreal to assisting costume designers in hand-dyeing fabrics, Hawayek emphasizes the importance of color within costuming, a bigger sentiment to the changing dynamic of expression across all Olympic sports. For this year’s program, Hawayek and Baker rely on darker tones to accompany their classical freestyle dance as an example of their tremendous growth.

“We’ve competed [with] classical pieces of music before and the costumes we had then were very light, maybe a little bit effervescent and ethereal,” she said. “I wanted to show more depth and more maturity, and the word that kept coming to mind was nostalgia.”

Courtesy of Lynn Plage, U.S. Figure Skating Media

With this powerful emotion pouring from every aspect of her upcoming Olympic appearance, Hawayek recognizes her position at the pinnacle of global athletics. Living unlimitedly as she embarks on this dream turned reality, she credits her longtime support system with helping her discover the power of optimism over perceived limits.

“My parents always encouraged me to not limit myself with how far I thought I could go within the sport and education,” she said. “They really encouraged me to not set a limit to what I could achieve.”

As family and Penn State become increasingly intertwined for the ice dancer, the community remains a key asset in pursuing her lifelong goals. Holding family close as endless support, she summarized the importance of connecting with her circle even when separated, as she trains in Montreal and her brother studies at University Park.

A particularly special event in which she performed the program of a lifetime to earn her place, the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships — her final qualifying event — provided an opportunity for her entire family’s in-person return to the stands.

But moments like these do not come without sacrifices, as Hawayek and her skating partner made the ultimate decision to create a small bubble through the event in an abundance of caution. As a global athlete competing to achieve her life’s work during unprecedented times, Hawayek explained the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a very unique circumstance with omicron being so present and our nationals still having an audience, not being in a more controlled setting,” Hawayek said. “Knowing that even though our goal was to qualify for the Olympics and we did that, we still had to be able to get to the Olympics.”

In making this choice to prioritize safety in the pursuit of a lifelong goal, Hawayek was unable to interact closely with her family during the event. Still, she was grateful to share that moment with them in one way or another.

“Being able to see them from afar in the stands replicated that feeling as close as possible,” she continued, “Having all of them there at the same time was a really positively overwhelming feeling because it was something I’d been really longing for again, for a long time.”

Current COVID-19 restrictions prevent her family from joining her at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. But once again, Hawayek refuses to let any negativity reflect on her dream come true.

“Both the US Olympic Committee and U.S. Figure Skating are going above and beyond to provide some viewing parties for the families to come together and feel that Olympic community, which gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing that they’ll have their Olympic experience as well, even though it won’t be in Beijing,” she said.

Remaining ever positive and hopeful, Hawayek shared a final bit of brilliance with us as she prepares for the world’s stage in less than a week.

“[It] was something I really learned quickly in the early parts of my career. If I opened my mind and realized that’s there’s limitless opportunity and possibility, it’s true. People need to realize that their possibility is limitless and once people unlock that space in their brain, they can achieve so much more than they ever thought they could.”

Matching unlimited talent with genuine character, Hawayek serves as an example of Penn State pride. Passionate, driven, and dedicated, she establishes a new standard for the Nittany Lions on the global scale, reflecting grace and integrity as she shared her final wish before the games.

“Hopefully, I can feel that Penn State community behind me when I’m in Beijing,” she concluded.

Mind flourishing and spirit soaring, Hawayek challenges us all to redefine our limits and reframe our mindsets in the face of a new world. From her all-enduring motivation to her never-ending positivity, Kaitlin Hawayek is already the ultimate champion, mind as sharp as the blades beneath her skates.

The 2022 Olympic Winter Games will officially get underway starting February 4. Be sure to tune in and follow along with Onward State as we keep you posted on a handful of Penn Staters overseas.

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie is a senior majoring in Marketing and Psychology from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi, or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in the theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang out with her sassy sidekick, 19-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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