Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

It wasn’t very long after winning her first senior national figure skating championship last January that Isabeau Levito began to look at it less as a crowning achievement and more as an albatross around her neck.

Levito almost immediately began to feel pressure about successfully defending the title, her sleep disturbed by thoughts of what would happen if she did not repeat as champion.

She had gone from a 2023 head space of competing with nothing to lose to one in which she worried about having everything to lose at the Prevagen U.S. Championships that begin Thursday in Columbus, Ohio.

“Honestly, it was kind of in the back of my mind ever since I won nationals last year,” Levito said. “A month later, I was already thinking about how stressed I would be for the next nationals, knowing that I felt not winning would be losing something.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule

Levito realized that carrying that mental burden for a year would be unhealthy. She found relief by bringing up the issue with a sports psychologist, who convinced the 16-year-old that the title she won in 2023 was hers forever, no matter what happened in 2024.

“I’m just going in to see if I can win,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the fact I won last year.”

Her triumph had made Levito, of Mount Holly, N.J., just the second born-and-bred Jersey girl to win the U.S. Championship in women’s singles, joining Elaine Zayak, who was the 1981 titlist, 1982 World champion and a 1984 Olympian.

Zayak is also the only U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater born in New Jersey. Levito is even more Jersey to the core, since she also trains there, while Zayak trained in a New York rink at the height of her career.

“People will ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Jersey,’ and they’ll be like, `Oh, a JERSEY girl,’’’ Levito said, laughing. “I always thought that was very cute.

“I’ve always been proud to be a Jersey girl. I don’t see why I wouldn’t be.’’’

Two Garden State homies, Ava Ziegler and Lindsay Thorngren, also figured to be medal contenders at nationals after their surprising one-two finish at the NHK Grand Prix event in late November. But Ziegler withdrew from the U.S. Championships to concentrate on the Four Continents Championships in Shanghai, where practices begin just two days after the U.S. Championships end.

“Having these three young women at the same time is part coincidence,” said Craig Maurizi, skating director at the Ice House in Hackensack since that North Jersey facility opened in 1998. “And part of it was rink management making a significant commitment to figure skating.”

The Ice House has drawn elite athletes in droves since then, including Ziegler, 17, (who recently moved to a New York rink) and Thorngren, 18, who has trained there since age six, a year after she moved to New Jersey.

“I really love this whole scenario, and I love that it’s happening,” said Julia Lautowa, Thorngren’s coach from the outset. “I think it’s a great thing for all. And for building New Jersey figure skating.”

Lautowa’s daughter, Skylar Lautowa-Peguero, could be a future cornerstone. At 11, she won the novice division in this season’s National Qualifying Series, cleanly landing seven triple jumps in her long program at Skate Milwaukee.

”She’s a little firecracker,” Lautowa said.

Levito, a high school junior from South Jersey, remains the women’s favorite this week, with gold and silver medals on the Grand Prix circuit and the two highest scores by a U.S. woman in international competition this season. She finished fourth at last season’s world championships.

But she has struggled at times this season, never more so than in the short program at December’s Grand Prix Final in Beijing, where the result was her lowest short program score ever (56.53) in 14 international senior and junior events.

That put her back in the nothing-to-lose frame of mind heading into the free skate.

“It was like, `OK, my chances of really getting a medal out of this competition are kind of gone,’’’ Levito said. “So I just regrouped and thought of just skating a long program for myself and almost using it as a practice for my next competition.’’

Despite three more costly mistakes, she placed third in the long program and fifth overall, a disappointing outcome after having been silver medalist in that event a year ago.

Levito has not done two clean programs (no negative grades of execution) in an event since last year’s nationals. All her long programs in two-phase events this season have had at least two negative GOEs. All five of her international top mean GOEs in a long program and her top seven in a short came before this season.

“Usually I’m so consistent in competitions, but recently I’ve been making little mistakes on almost every program.’ Levito said in Beijing.

The way Levito skates, with grace, fluidity, and a lighter-than-air quality, makes it easy to underestimate her competitiveness.

“People probably assign like prima ballerina or terms like that to her,” said Justin Dillon, U.S. Figure Skating’s senior director of athlete high performance. “But she has a tiger personality.

“When she competes, you know she expects nothing but perfection, which is obviously not always attainable. But you just can’t help watch and admire that drive and that spirit.”

Such perfectionism can be just another albatross, and Levito is working to unburden herself of that as well.

“It’s tough, because I feel like it (perfectionism) almost like stays with you,” Levito said. “But sometimes you have to try to think about quantity over quality at times when you’re just always hyper fixated on quality. I can’t just stop my footwork in the middle of it when I feel like I didn’t hit the music on my twizzle.”

Stress from trying to repeat. Stress from trying to be flawless. It’s enough to create hesitancy in her mind about attacking programs.

No wonder that Levito wants to deliver programs at nationals with “less worrying.”

“Just kind of let loose and really just go for things,” she said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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