COLUMBUS, Ohio — When eventual winner Amber Glenn finished her free skate, she was crestfallen, her head bowed, her eyes downcast as she kneeled on the ice.
When defending champion Isabeau Levito finished her free skate a few minutes later, she was despondent, her hands covering her face as she kneeled on the ice.
Rarely has a national championship had such a deflating ending, even if Glenn’s triumph after years of struggles deserves to be celebrated.
“It wasn’t exactly how I wanted to get my first national title,” Glenn said. “It was a mix of being extremely grateful for the results but also knowing I can do so much better.”
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Despite two major jump mistakes after opening with a flawless triple Axel and then reeling off four more solid triples, Glenn managed to win because the usually consistent Levito had a startling implosion.
Levito, 16, fell on her first jumping pass, then seemed to have collected herself nicely before falling twice more in the second half of her program. She wound up third.
“This whole night was kind of a fever dream,” Levito said. “I was so shaky and nervous.”
Not since Michelle Kwan came undone in the 1997 free skate, falling on three jumps and popping a fourth in losing to Tara Lipinski, had a reigning U.S. champion stumbled so badly.
The performance of the night came from Josephine Lee, 15, who won the free skate to get second.
Glenn, 24, had 210.46 points to 204.13 for Lee and 200.68 for Levito.
“When I made that first mistake, I was like, `What am I doing?’’’ Levito said. “Then I pulled myself together for a couple minutes. I have no recollection of how I went down on the flip and loop.”
Levito, fourth in the free, had scored 23 points higher to win last year.
Glenn has kept plugging away for a decade after she won the junior national title in 2014, when her promise seemed immense.
She would need a break from the sport in 2015 for mental health reasons. Glenn was on the verge of quitting after being forced to withdraw from the 2022 Nationals, where she tested positive for Covid following a poor short program when she was already sick.
“After this last Olympic cycle, I kind of had to figure out everything from the ground up, completely restart,” Glenn said. “Never did I think that would lead to a national title.”
Glenn changed coaches before last season, moving to Damon Allen in Colorado Springs after having spent her entire life living and training in Texas. She finished third at the 2023 Nationals.
“Of course, I’d like to go back in time and to give the knowledge I have now to my younger self and save myself a lot of heartache and pain,” Glenn said. “But I’ve been through what I’ve been through, and I’m stronger because of it.
“It has been a long journey to get to this title.”
In a way, it was fitting that Glenn went through agony and ecstasy as she won.
As had happened when she finally landed triple Axels twice earlier this season, Glenn could not stand prosperity. This time, the costly mistakes were doubling a triple lutz (and omitting the second jump of a planned combination) and singling a triple flip.
She lost some 12-to-15 points and was certain the title had slipped away.
Instead, Glenn became the first openly queer women’s singles national champion. She came out during the 2020 season.
“Being the first openly queer women’s champion is incredible,” Glenn said, a pride pin on her warmup jacket. “When I came out initially, I was terrified. I was scared it would affect my scores or something.”
“But I didn’t care. It was worth it to see the amount of young people who felt more comfortable in their environments at the rink, (people) who feel, ‘Oh, I’m represented by her, and she’s one of the top skaters (so) I don’t have to try and hide the sight of me.’
“Just because you have this aspect (to your life) doesn’t mean you can’t be a top athlete.”
Nothing could have made that point better and more clearly than the sight of Amber Glenn standing atop the medal podium.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.