At the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash., a group of pre-pubescent pixies stood next to the boards peering out onto the ice waiting for their turn to skate. One skater was lucky to have been wearing her skates, otherwise she would have had to wait until the gate opened to see the ice on which she was about to compete.
Twelve-year-old Leah Keiser took to the ice on that January afternoon, and commanded the ice in ways that more experienced skaters should one day hope to achieve. Along the way, Keiser earned the title of U.S. Novice Ladies Champion.
“Winning the Novice title in Spokane was amazing,” Keiser said with her trademark bright smile. “[It] meant a lot to me and to my family. We have sacrificed a lot for my skating.”
But Keiser is not new at winning national championships. This is her second. Before missing the Junior National Championships on the Intermediate level in 2009, the seventh grader at Placentia Yorba Linda School District won the Juvenile Girls title in 2008.
After a year away from the national stage, Keiser went back to the training rink more determined than ever. But things didn’t come as easy as she would have hoped.
“After the 2009 season, my goal was to get all my triples,” Keiser remembered. “I put all my triples in the first competition of the 2010 season, which was the All Year Figure Skating Competition in early June. I only got credit for my triple Salchows.”
Keiser finished in third place at that competition with a total score of about forty points less than her total at the National Championships. After that competition, Keiser worked to clean up her triple jumps, and they started to come together just before the Southwest Pacific Regional Championships. She finished in second place, and advanced to the Pacific Coast Sectionals where she won the bronze medal.
By the time Spokane rolled around, Keiser landed five triple jumps, including two Lutzes, to propel her to the title and the second highest novice ladies score at the U.S. Championships since the 6.0 system was put out to pasture.
“I actually did not know that I had scored the second highest point total,” Keiser confessed. “Going in the competition, I just wanted to skate my best. I had been training really hard all season, so I just wanted to skate as well as I had been doing in practice.”
Keiser began skating in her native Pittsburgh, Pa., at the age of four as she needed an outlet to burn off her excess energy. Keiser’s mother, Betty, asked what sport she would like to try, and like many young American girls, Keiser decided that she wanted to skate after watching the legendary Michelle Kwan.
Olympian Caryn Kadavy, traveled from her home in Erie, Pa., to Pittsburgh to train Keiser in her beginning years, but was limited in the time she could commit to the young skater due to skating commitments of her own. So, after a difficult time at a regional championship, Keiser’s parents thought it time to make some tough decisions.
“Leah would spend most of her time practicing on her own, even though [Kadavy] was always available by phone,” mom Betty recalled. “After Leah’s first disappointing regionals, my husband and I tried to persuade her to do different sports. She cried and tried to convince us to give her one year to skate in a place where she could get routine training. She was so persistent that my husband and I finally gave in.”
So with Kadavy’s blessing, the Keisers decided that Betty, Leah, and ten-year-old sister Emily would move to California to train. Keiser’s father, Thomas, was left behind to tend to the homestead in Pittsburgh, and to continue his work with a financial investment company in order to support the family.
“She won the Juvenile title that year,” Betty said proudly.
But the move wasn’t easy for the Keisers, and the original plan was for the relocation to be temporary.
“We came to California with two suitcases four years ago, planning to stay for a short time. We started by renting a place on weekly basis,” Betty explained. “In four years, we had moved five times for various reasons, but during it all, Leah’s drive and motivation never worn off. She works hard and keeps herself motivated everyday.”
Thomas is also the one who does most of the traveling to keep the family in tact. Weekend visits twice monthly and holidays is what the family lives for these days.
“He stays close to me and the girls by talking to us on the phone many times a day,” Betty chuckled.
And Emily, also a figure skater, is flourishing in her adopted training environment as well.
“Emily has competed at Junior Nationals before and she will likely compete at intermediate level this year,” Keiser said with pride.
Keiser also has three older half siblings, all of whom have the athletic gene as well. Keiser’s brother Thomas attends Stanford University and plays on the football team, while her other brother, Alex, is on the rowing team at Boston University. A junior at Penn State University, Keiser’s sister Stephanie is a tennis player.
This season Keiser has made some huge changes to her skating life. After skating under the tutelage of Peter Oppegard last season, Keiser made the move to train with Frank Carroll, coach of Olympic Champion Evan Lysacek.
“I like training with [Carroll] because I feel really connect with him,” Keiser admitted. “I didn’t really have a training plan before I started to train with him.”
Additionally, she has decided to compete on the junior level this year, but will have to settle for competing at local competitions in advance of the qualifying season.
“My birthday is September 13, so I am not eligible for Junior Grand Prix this year,” said Keiser, who is a little more than two months shy of age qualification. “I am a little disappointed, but I think it will make me work even harder so that I can do well at Nationals next year.”
All of that disappointment has been channeled into Keiser’s training. Already this spring, she has worked with choreographer Cindy Stuart to put together her long program, and has also tasked Stuart with her “work in progress” short program as well. Though Keiser was not willing to discuss the specifics of her programs at this time, she did share some details.
“I have been working very hard on improving my second mark,” Keiser said matter-of-factly. “[Carroll] spends a lot of time polishing my skating. I have a planned triple-triple combination in my long program, and hopefully I can get it consistent enough to put in competition.”
In addition to Carroll and Stuart, Keiser also works with Karen Kwan and Alex Chang to fill her already tight on ice schedule. Off ice, Keiser works with ballet instructor Galina Barinova, a former prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet, and Diana Kovacic, who is charged with Keiser’s off-ice conditioning.
“I usually skate early in the morning, take a break, and skate again in early afternoon,” Keiser said of a typical day in her skating life. “I used to skate with Mirai Nagasu, Michelle Kwan, and Mao Asada at different times. I also skate with many national level skaters everyday. Skating with all these high level skaters encourages me to train harder.”
When she isn’t training, or working on her math, social studies, literature, or science homework, Keiser is just like any other kid.
“I like to read, ride my bike, and play outside,” said Keiser, who carries a 4.0 average in school. “I also enjoy playing in the pool with my friends.”
In addition to collecting swans and penguins, Keiser also likes to spend time with the family pets, Tinkerbelle, an apricot toy poodle, and Annie, a puggle. And when she finds time, Keiser enjoys watching Dancing with the Stars, Suite Life on Deck, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Hannah Montana.
After her skating career concludes, which she hopes includes an Olympic title; Keiser would like to become an archeologist or a scientist because she finds both subjects very interesting. Until then, she will work on achieving her other goal in skating… “to bring skating to a whole new level”.