One after another, the final four skaters in the women’s free skate at the World Junior Championships performed with assurance and compelling quality, brightening the end of a long and muddled figure skating season.
All did clean programs, the best by surprising Jia Shin of South Korea, who won the free and nearly upset favored Isabeau Levito of the United States for the title Sunday in Tallinn, Estonia.
Levito, gritting her way through the free and getting some benefit of the doubt from the judges, held on by just 0.54 points to become the first U.S. woman atop the world junior podium since Rachael Flatt in 2008. Compatriot Lindsay Thorngren earned the bronze.
Levito’s gold medal, following those in ice dance by brother-sister team Oona and Gage Brown and in men’s singles by Ilia Malinin, gave Team USA three of the four world junior titles for the first time since 2008.
“We put in all the work in our training, so when we get to the competition, we’re really just collecting our scores and our medals,” Levito said. “Our medal is just a reflection on our training and how we did with our nerves.”
She totaled 206.55 to 206.01 for Shin and 199.42 for Thorngren.
The strong U.S. showing came in a season beset again by Covid complications – the world juniors were cancelled in 2021 and moved and postponed five weeks this year because of the pandemic. This season was further disarrayed by things Russian, first a still unresolved doping case revealed during the Olympics and then bans on Russian skaters after their country’s unprovoked and ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Russian women had won the previous four world junior titles and nine of the previous 10. The most recent Russian winner (2020) was Kamila Valieva, who had been the leading senior woman in the world this season before the revelation before the Olympic women’s singles competition of her positive doping control from a Dec. 25 test. Valieva staggered to fourth at the Olympics after winning the short program.
Levito, 15, battled herself after taking a lead of more than three points over Shin into the free skate. Two of her final three jump combinations were problematic, but she emerged with positive grades of execution on them and finished the program with two strong spins.
“I just focused one element at a time until the music ended,” Levito said.
Asked if she had been more nervous than she expected, Levito said, “I think so, yes. I try to think what I will be feeling but you can’t really know how you are going to feel until it’s really happening.”
Component scores in the short and free programs provided Levito a 3.49-point advantage over Shin.
Shin, who turned 14 less than a month ago (no one in the event was younger), bettered her free skate personal best by 14 points. She is the second South Korean to win a world junior medal, joining Yuna Kim, gold medalist in 2006 and silver medalist in 2005.
South Koreans Ahsun Yun and Seoyeong Wi were fourth and fifth. Yun, part of the fab final four, crushed her old career best by 17 points.
Levito, who finished third in the senior event at this year’s U.S. Championships, was unsure about whether she would move up to the senior level internationally next season.
“It’s a little bit of a mystery,” she said.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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