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First came weekly learn-to-skate classes, which Garberi originally made a reward for her daughter if she finished her meals.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