Kaitlin Hawayek spent last summer dealing with a concussion that she got in practice, unsure of when she would be able to join ice dance partner Jean-Luc Baker on the rink again to prepare for the Beijing Olympics.
Ashley Cain-Gribble spent time in the hospital with COVID-19, an illness that left her with long-term asthma.
They are just two of the figure skaters in the American contingent headed to the Winter Games next month who have had to overcome obstacles — mostly illness and injury — to compete in the most important competition of their lives.
There is three-time world champion Nathan Chen, one of the favorites to win gold, who has a history of hip injuries and is dealing with a sore groin. And two-time U.S. champ Alysa Liu and Brandon Frazier, the partner of pairs skater Alexa Knierim, both of whom tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and had to withdraw from nationals.
“With full transparency," Hawayek said, “I didn't know what the course of the injury was going to look like as we entered the Olympic season. There was a lot of doubt whether we'd be able to get back to a competition-ready place.”
Indeed, of all the injuries and illnesses, the concussion that Hawayek sustained was perhaps the most serious.
On a warm, early summer day in June, Hawayek and Baker were working on a new lift that they already had done several times without an issue. But they pushed it to the limit, lost their balance and Hawayek cracked her head on the ice.
She was taken to the hospital for stitches and was diagnosed with a significant concussion.
Hawayek began working with Sarah El Queisi, a physiotherapist specializing in such injuries, and together they put a plan in place to get back to work. Hawayek was off the ice entirely for 10 days, then began with light workouts in which she kept close tabs on her heart rate. As time went on, Hawayek was able to add practice time in 15-minute increments, though she and Baker still had to withdraw from the U.S. Classic and their Grand Prix assignment at the NHK Trophy.
They finally made their season debut at the Rostelecom Cup in Russia, finishing in fifth place, then won a lower-level event in Croatia. That gave them momentum heading into nationals, where a third-place finish earned them their first Olympic berth.
“Thing is, it's not necessarily the injury I had. We both had so many obstacles, injury, working through health-related stuff,” Hawayek said. “What I've learned is we can lean into each other without relying on each other. We have trust in ourselves to know what we need. We've really learned to communicate for ourselves in the best way, to communicate what we need and how other people can be there to support us. I think we've been able to just grow even closer together.”
Cain-Gribble and her pairs partner, Timothy DeLuc, also said they grew closer after her bout with COVID-19 last year. She was hospitalized for a short period but eventually tested negative and was cleared to return to practice.
Cain-Gribble thought that was the end of it, but then she struggled through their program at the Autumn Classic.
“It was hard for me to breathe. I thought it was just me being out of shape,” she said. “When we got back I went to see a pulmonologist and found out I got asthma. I'm healthy and I'm young and I thought I'd be able to recover quickly, but that wasn't the case for me. But luckily I was able to get help so that I can be here.”
That help included a series of steroid injections to deal with inflammation and an inhaler she uses twice a day.
Liu didn't have nearly the same problem after her positive COVID-19 test. That occurred after her short program at nationals, and she was forced to quarantine in her hotel room until testing negative. But she was chipper when speaking by Zoom a couple of days later, when the selection committee chose her to compete in Beijing.
Frazier also was feeling better by that point, though his positive test before the start of nationals threw him for a loop. The pairs skater wrote in a social media post that he felt awful after contracting the coronavirus.
The worst part for him, though, was being unable to celebrate making the Olympic team with his partner.
"I think it's safe to say I'm 100% back to normal," he said. “I was very devastated. I know Alexa was, too. But she's the backbone of this team when I needed the support. ... Now I'm trying to take a deep breath and accept what is and what was and remind myself that, you know what? We still have a lot of work to do. We still have a lot in front of us.”
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