At age 14 and just 4-foot-9, figure skater Isabeau Levito within reach of senior podium at nationals

ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating - Linz
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About 12 years ago, Chiara Garberi decided to check out the ice rink in her New Jersey neighborhood to see if it might be a place where she could skate for fun on weekends.

With her daughter, Isabeau Levito, in tow, Garberi arrived at a moment when competitive figure skaters were training. Levito, then age 2 ½, took one look at the situation and asked if she could go on the ice.

“I told her, `You need special shoes for that,’” Garberi recalled. “She saw a pair of rental skates next to the ice sheet and said, `Are those mine?’”

They would be, soon enough. Because what followed was a progression familiar to parents of kids who wind up in figure skating’s highest levels.

First came weekly learn-to-skate classes, which Garberi originally made a reward for her daughter if she finished her meals. Next, a year later, was asking a coach who was working with the beginners if Levito, at almost 4, was ready for a private lesson. (The answer was yes.) And then, a few years later, daily lessons. Now, all day at the rink, six days a week, with schoolwork fit in between and after skating sessions.

“Isabeau always tried to be better than everyone else, even in learn to skate,” said Yulia Kuznetsova, who has been Levito’s coach for 10 years.

Levito in learn-to-skate class at 3 years old (courtesy Chiara Garberi)

The difference is Levito’s progression from learn-to-skate level has been faster and greater than most everyone else’s, so that, at age 14, she is widely viewed as a medal contender in the senior women’s event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships next week in Nashville.

“That is actually my goal, to be on the podium at nationals,” Levito said. “I don’t want to sound cocky, because I will be competing against very, very good skaters who are seasoned professionals. I’ve looked up to them for a long time, so it’s weird trying to compete against them, but it will be fun.”

It may be more fun for Levito making her senior national debut than for the other medal contenders, since she is below the minimum age for senior international events until next season. That means she will not have the pressure of competing for one of three Olympic spots that others like Alysa Liu, Mariah Bell, Karen Chen, Amber Glenn and Bradie Tennell will face.

“It’s going to be probably pretty stressful for everyone there except Isabeau,” Kuznetsova said. “The podium is possible, but I don’t focus on place. I just want her to perform well.”

Levito comes to nationals with the third-highest score (208.31) by a U.S. woman this season, just 2.04 points behind that of the second, three-time U.S. national medalist Bell, 25. And Levito’s score came in a junior event, where the free skate contains one fewer point-scoring element.

Liu, 16, the two-time U.S. champion, has the highest score (219.24), and her history is something of a template for Levito.

Using a high base value jump, the triple axel, Liu became the youngest U.S. champion ever at age 13 in 2019 and won the title again in 2020. She also is the only active U.S. woman to have landed a clean triple axel, but Liu is 0-for-6 on the jump this season, and her last successful attempt came at the 2020 World Junior Championships.

“With very hard elements, you can beat some girls who have been doing this a long time,” Levito said.

That, of course, is the strategy that has allowed one precocious Russian mid-teen phenom after another to become world-beaters.

The 4-foot-9 Levito does not yet do triple axels and has tried a quad only in a couple minor domestic events. Her advantage nationally comes from her triple-triple combinations, the most consistent (six-for-six clean this season) and, in aggregate, the most difficult among U.S. women: triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow, triple lutz-triple toe, triple flip-triple toe, all done in the bonus period of the short or free program.

Levito also comes to nationals after recovering from what her coach called a “lower body” injury. It led her to withdraw from the Junior Grand Prix Final one week before that event was cancelled over Covid-related issues. Kuznetsova said her programs would contain the same jumps she used in this debut season on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, where she won gold and silver medals.

“I was a little bit surprised by the results,” Levito said. “Sometimes people aim for a goal and when they get there, it’s like `Yeah, I knew I was going to do that.’ Me, no matter how much I knew I could do it, I always still feel a little surprised after achieving a goal.”

Levito is aiming for the 2026 Olympics, where the skating competition will take place not far from where her mother grew up in Milan.

Garberi, a clinical embryologist who has raised Levito as a single parent, moved to the United States from Italy in 1997. An interest in European history and a passion for the movie “Ladyhawke” led her to name Isabeau (pronounced ee-za-boh) for the role Michelle Pfeiffer played (Isabeau d’Anjou) in a film set in the Middle Ages.

Italian is one of the three languages Levito speaks. She surprised the two Russians who joined her on the podium at the Junior Grand Prix in Austria by addressing them in Russian, a language she is learning almost by osmosis since Levito’s entire coaching team in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, is Russian-speaking.

“She can understand about 40 percent of what we say in Russian already,” Kuznetsova said.

Levito at age 6, with coach Yulia Kuznetsova (courtesy Chiara Garberi)

Kuznetsova, a former pairs’ skater, heads a team that includes: her husband, Slava Kuznetsov, who also does power skating sessions for the Philadelphia Flyers; Zhanna Palagina, a ballet teacher; Otar Japaridze, a 2010 Olympic ice dancer for Georgia who works on skating skills; and Yevgeny Platov, 1992 and 1994 Olympic ice dance champion for Russia who still does some work with Levito even though he moved to Florida six years ago.

“I can do jumps and programs but with only me, it is impossible to raise a superstar,” Kuznetsova said.

Kuznetsova began to see Levito as a potential top singles skater when she started to jump strongly at age 8. Added to an innate sense as a performer Levito had since she was very small, and the coach knew she had a student with a chance to excel.

Levito became U.S. juvenile champion in 2018, intermediate silver medalist in 2019, junior silver medalist in 2020 and junior champion last season. Her international junior debut was delayed a year by Covid, but that delay did not mean Kuznetsova wanted to rush Levito into concentrating on quads and triple axels this season.

The ninth grader, whose schooling is done through International Virtual Learning Academy, hopes to add either a quad or a triple axel next season.

“We’re focused on her growing up,” Kuznetsova said. “I don’t want her to skate until puberty and be done. I want her to skate a long time.”

Ironically, even if she had skated her best, Levito likely would have had a tougher challenge getting on the podium against a field with four formidable young Russians at the Junior Grand Prix Final than she might at the U.S. Championships.

“I want to skate clean, and we’ll see how it looks,” Levito said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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