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First came weekly learn-to-skate classes, which Garberi originally made a reward for her daughter if she finished her meals.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

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Coco Gauff rallies past 16-year-old at French Open

Coco Gauff French Open

Coco Gauff rallied to defeat 16-year-old Russian Mirra Andreeva in the French Open third round in Gauff’s first Grand Slam singles match against a younger opponent.

The sixth seed Gauff, the 2022 French Open runner-up, outlasted Andreeva 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-1 to reach the fourth round, where she plays 100th-ranked Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

“[Andreeva] is super young, so she has a lot to look forward to,” Gauff, 19, said on Tennis Channel. “I’m sure we’re going to have many more battles in the future. … I remember when I was 16. I didn’t care who I was playing against, and she has that kind of game and mentality, too.”

Gauff could play top seed and defending champ Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals. Swiatek on Saturday thumped 80th-ranked Wang Xinyu of China 6-0, 6-0, winning 50 of the 67 points in a 51-minute match.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

This week, Andreeva became the youngest player to win a French Open main draw match since 2005 (when 15-year-old Sesil Karatantcheva of Bulgaria made the quarterfinals). She was bidding to become the youngest to make the last 16 of any major since Gauff’s breakout as a 15-year-old.

The American made it that far at 2019 Wimbledon (beating Venus Williams in her Grand Slam main draw debut) and the 2020 Australian Open (beating defending champion Naomi Osaka) before turning 16. At last year’s French Open, Gauff became the youngest player to make a Grand Slam final since Maria Sharapova won 2004 Wimbledon at 17.

This was only Gauff’s third match against a younger player dating to her tour debut in 2019. It took Gauff 50 Grand Slam matches to finally face a younger player on this stage, a testament to how ahead of the curve she was (and still is).

While Gauff is the only teenager ranked in the top 49 in the world, Andreeva is the highest-ranked player under the age of 18 at No. 143 (and around No. 100 after the French). And she doesn’t turn 17 until next April. Andreeva dropped just six games in her first two matches at this French Open, fewest of any woman.

Gauff is the last seeded American woman left in the draw after No. 3 Jessica Pegula, No. 20 Madison Keys and No. 32 Shelby Rogers previously lost.

Gauff is joined in the fourth round by countrywomen Sloane Stephens (2017 U.S. Open champion ranked 30th) and 36th-ranked Bernarda Pera (at 28, the oldest U.S. singles player to reach the last 16 of a Slam for the first time since Jill Craybas at 2005 Wimbledon).

The last U.S. woman to win a major title was Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major span without an American champ is the longest for U.S. women since Monica Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

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2023 French Open women’s singles draw, scores

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At the French Open, Iga Swiatek of Poland eyes a third title at Roland Garros and a fourth Grand Slam singles crown overall.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Swiatek, the No. 1 seed from Poland, can join Serena Williams and Justine Henin as the lone women to win three or more French Opens since 2000.

Having turned 22 on Wednesday, she can become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Men’s Draw

But Swiatek is not as dominant as in 2022, when she went 16-0 in the spring clay season during an overall 37-match win streak.

She retired from her last pre-French Open match with a right thigh injury and said it wasn’t serious. Before that, she lost the final of another clay-court tournament to Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed, is her top remaining challenger in Paris.

No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the highest-seeded American man or woman, was eliminated in the third round. No. 4 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who has three wins over Swiatek this year, withdrew before her third-round match due to illness.

No. 6 Coco Gauff, runner-up to Swiatek last year, is the best hope to become the first American to win a Grand Slam singles title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought is the longest for U.S. women since Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Women’s Singles Draw

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