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South Jersey figure skater Isabeau Levito makes her debut at the World Championships

Philadelphia Inquirer 3/20/2023 Ellen Dunkel, The Philadelphia Inquirer

When the women take the ice Wednesday at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, South Jersey’s Isabeau Levito will be leading the U.S. team.

The U.S. champion and 2022 World Junior champion, who lives in Mount Holly and trains in Mount Laurel, turned 16 this month and it’s her first time at Worlds, which is second in importance only to the Winter Olympics.

Joining her will be two women who have a lot more years of competition: two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, 25, and Amber Glenn, 24, who also is making her Worlds debut.

But Levito caught up quickly.

Her coach, Yulia Kuznetsova recently went on YouTube, watched old videos from when her star pupil was 3, and immediately was sent back in time.

“I feel like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Kuznetsova said. “From [age] 3 in the club competition to going to Worlds. It’s big, you know, the work done between all those years. So I’m very proud of both of us.

“She was really able to skate when she was 3 and she was so excited every day,” she said of Levito. “And she was always smiling. Pushing forward, you know, very excited kid to skate.”

Kuznetsova was Levito’s first coach and still her main coach. She still describes Levito as a smiley, happy, and intelligent skater.

South Jersey’s Isabeau Levito is just 15 — and she’s already a U.S. figure skating champion. Next up, the world?

“To me, she’s still a little bit young,” the coach said. “I mean, on the ice, because she spent mostly her whole life on the ice rink. Outside of the rink, she is a very mature, a grown-up young lady. She reads a lot, so she learned a lot from the books.”

But Kuznetsova, who sees herself as a second mother to Levito, isn’t in a rush to see her grow up.

“I still want her to be a kid,” she said. “I want her to enjoy her childhood, because she doesn’t have much of a childhood. She’s at the rink all day long.”

Levito will skate her short program on Wednesday and free skate, or long program, on Friday. Because of the time difference, the competition will be broadcast early in the morning Philadelphia time.

The last time Levito competed, it was at February’s Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo. Levito was in second after the short program but withdrew shortly before she was scheduled to skate her long program.

South Jersey’s Isabeau Levito wins gold at the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championship

“She didn’t feel well on the whole trip,” Kuznetsova said. “We were going to the last moment. We were trying to skate. But medical staff decided to take her off because [combined with the] high altitude, that’s not very healthy. We need to be safe and healthy.

“The week before Four Continents, we skated there in Colorado. She was doing pretty well with high altitude. It was just the last five days before competition, she started feeling sick. There were so many people sick around there.”

But now she is prepared to compete again and is especially eager because it is her first trip to Japan, home to many enthusiastic skating fans.

“She’s excited,” Kuznetsova said, who also is attending her first Worlds as a coach but skated there with Disney on Ice. “I can see she’s a little bit nervous about but we tried to train for it. People love, love skating there. And they’re always excited to see skaters. I know how crowded it is going to be be. But we didn’t know how it’s going to be for this competition.”

The goals for this event?

“Stay calm, learn a lot of course, because it’s a Worlds,” Kuznetsova said. “Try to get experience. And learn, watch, enjoy.

“At home, she skates pretty well every day,” she said. “But, again, skate at home, it’s one story. Skate in [front of] the big audience with the big stage, lots of people, lots of fans, it’s a different story.

“It’s a big experience for both of us. I need to see how she going to react. I need to see how she’s going to skate; how she going be? It’s going be new for me also. So we will see, very excited to see.”

The big picture

This time, however, results will not only affect Levito. The world championship results determine how many skaters a country is allowed to send Worlds the following year. The placements of the two highest-placing women (and men, pairs, and dance teams) from a country must add up to 13 of less for that country to earn three spots for the next year. That number is 28 to keep two spots.

This is another reason why Russia objects to not being allowed to compete. After dominating for so many years, next time they are allowed to compete at the world championships, they will only be allowed one spot in each discipline.

South Jersey’s Isabeau Levito claims silver at the Grand Prix Final in Italy

This year, the U.S. has three skaters or teams in each discipline, but there was another question mark with another rule in play. Skaters must also earn a minimum score internationally in the past year to qualify for the world championships.

U.S. men’s bronze medalist Andrew Torgashev didn’t have that score, since he hadn’t competed in three years. He had one chance to earn it, at Challenge Cup in February in the Netherlands — and it was a nail-biter.

But Torgashev earned his score and will join Ilia Malinin (and his quad axel) and Jason Brown in Japan.

The pairs are 2022 world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, as well as Emily Chan and Spencer Howe and Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea.

Knierim and Frazier’s coach, Todd Sand, suffered a massive heart attack earlier this month at the World Junior Championships in Calgary. (His team there, Sophia Baram and Daniel Tioumentsev went on to win the title.) He was flown this week back to California, but his coaching partner and wife is with him at the hospital. So fans are wondering who will coach Knierim and Frazier in Japan and whether this will give them extra drive in the competition, perhaps leading to a repeat championship.

The U.S. ice dancers in Japan are Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, and Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko. Carreira and Ponomarenko were replacements after Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker withdrew because of physical and mental health issues from injuries sustained last season.

TV schedule

Wednesday: Levito will skate in the women’s short program, which will be broadcast 2:45-8 a.m. on Peacock and 6-8 a.m. on USA. The U.S. women likely will all skate in that 6-8 a.m. slot.

Friday: She will skate in the free skate, or long program, broadcast 4:15-8 a.m. on Peacock and 6:30-8:30 a.m. on USA. Levito most likely will skate in the last hour of the broadcast.

Saturday: Highlights will be broadcast 8-10 p.m. on NBC.

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