Josephine Lee, 16, announces her presence in figure skating

Josephine Lee’s figure skating talent is obvious to even the most casual observer.

The sureness of her jumps, her ability to captivate an audience and the exquisite quality of her edges — the technique that puts the “figure” in figure skating — make her an entrancing athlete. Lee, who turned 16 on Feb. 3, confirmed her 2026 Olympic ambitions by performing the highest-scored long program at the recent U.S. championships, a stunning routine that lifted her to an unexpected but deserved second-place finish behind Amber Glenn and ahead of defending champion Isabeau Levito.

Yet Lee, who lives in Irvine and trains at Lakewood Ice, has another talent that isn’t as obvious: She can solve a Rubik’s cube with her feet.

She played a video of her feet feat for The Times but was too modest to share it. Suffice to say that if finishing a Rubik’s cube with your feet ever becomes an Olympic sport, she’d contend for a gold medal.

She had solved it with her hands, but she didn’t stop there. “One time I was on a long car ride and I got really bored, so I decided to put the Rubik’s cube on the floor. It took about an hour,” she said. “It’s a really good ankle exercise.”

It’s not a conventional training method, but it’s working for her.

Lee is too young to compete in this year’s world championships at the senior level but will go to the world junior competition later this month in Taiwan in hopes of improving on her 19th-place finish a year ago. She’s trying to stay in the moment while positioning herself to earn a berth on the U.S. team at the 2026 Milan-Cortina Games, a tough balance to maintain.

She has the talent and the temperament. She was 4 when her father, Jeff, a computer programmer, took her to a rink near his office. She was, she joked, the only person ever to fail a Tot 1 learn-to-skate class. But even then, she recognized the challenges and sense of accomplishment the sport offered. That determination carried her through a stress fracture in her back when she was 11, and it fuels her efforts to conquer those jumps and spins on the way to living her Olympic dreams.

“I think she’s got a good shot. I think her work ethic and her desire to get there is more than anyone I see out there,” said her coach, Amy Evidente of Los Feliz.

“The good thing about her is you tell her to work on something or you work on something with her and it’s better the next day. She’s really taking everything in and trying to take the instruction or correction or whatever it is that she’s told. She will make sure that it’s done. And so I think she’s got as good of a chance as Amber and Isabeau and Lindsay Thorngren, whoever else is one of the top athletes.”

Josephine Lee competes during the women's free skate at the U.S. figure skating championships on Jan. 26.

Josephine Lee competes during the women’s free skate at the U.S. figure skating championships on Jan. 26.

(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Lee didn’t expect much from herself at the U.S. championships because she felt she hadn’t lived up to her potential this season. She was first after the short program at the Cranberry Cup junior event but dropped to third overall, and she finished eighth at a Grand Prix junior event in Linz, Austria. She did win the Pacific Coast sectional title.

Part of the problem was she had grown to about 5-foot-4 over the last year and wasn’t comfortable in her developing body. “It’s been a little struggle adjusting to that,” she said, “but I think my skating matured.”

Evidente was nervous for Lee before the U.S. competition.

“Only because she worked so hard and I just wanted her to put out two programs that she could walk away with that she could say, ‘I’m very proud that I did that,’” Evidente said. “My expectation was just for her to go and enjoy herself and kind of learn about herself through this process.”

Lee stood fifth after the short program. That was a moral victory because a costly mistake on an element in the short program a year ago had left her in 11th place, giving her a steep climb to her eventual fifth-place finish. This time, she pulled off a triple flip-triple toe loop jump combination and sailed through.

She was within reach of a medal. Suddenly, her expectations rose. “Then I was, ‘Shoot, I’ve never been in this position before,’” she said.

She handled the pressure beautifully, enjoying her performance instead of ticking off each technical element in her mind like a shopping list. She completed seven triple jumps without a single negative grade of execution from any of the nine judges; though she did a triple flip-double axel-double axel sequence instead of a triple-triple combination, she racked up 138.85 points, a personal best and three points better than Glenn’s free skate routine. Her final total score was 204.13 points.

Josephine Lee, right, hugs her coach, Amy Evidente, after learning her free skate score.

Josephine Lee, right, hugs her coach, Amy Evidente, after learning her free skate score at the U.S. figure skating championships.

(Josie Lepe / Associated Press)

Her only misstep occurred when, overwhelmed by the occasion, she tried to exit the ice through the Zamboni door instead of the skaters’ door.

“You go through a program and you watch a girl like that and you just go, ‘OK girl, you can do this,’” Evidente said. “‘Just six more jumps. OK, you can continue doing this. You can stay up. Just keep going.’”

They were both happily shocked by her score, but four skaters remained. Lee and Evidente didn’t know if her total would hold up as No. 1 for the long program and they didn’t know where she’d finish.

Lee didn’t see the final skaters or track the standings. “My eyelashes fell off and I was reapplying those. They fell off when I was crying in the kiss-and-cry. So I didn’t really watch Amber’s entire skate,” Lee said.

“But my friends were texting me, like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to place.’ I think I was getting interviewed in the mixed zone during Isabeau’s skate so I didn’t get to watch her. But I had no idea that I had won the free skate until afterward. Way after.”

Glenn and Levito are headed to the world championships, but Lee said she’s not disappointed to return to junior worlds. Her mother, attorney Caroline Tseng, is from Taiwan, so Lee welcomes the chance to visit. Since she didn’t expect to do well enough at the U.S. championships to be chosen for the junior world team, the chance to gain additional high-level international experience is a bonus. “I’m definitely really grateful for the opportunity,” she said.

She will face high expectations. Evidente, who began coaching her late in 2020, believes she’s better prepared than she was a year ago.

“I think with experience you just know so much more. And she knows how to handle herself so much more. So I think she will be able to thrive in that environment this year,” Evidente said. “The only expectation for me for her, as I told her [recently], is to stay loyal to her hard work. And to stay really present, because I think everything else comes from that.”

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