The 20-year-old foil fencer came into the Algers Foil World Cup mourning the recent death of a childhood fencing friend, so focusing was hard. Then, a tube of the gel that athletes suck down for quick energy spilled in her bag and got all over her foils.
Her preferred weapon — virtually an extension of her body — was unusable, and she had to use an unfamiliar foil. Topping off the weirdness, the lighting at the tournament was different, and it was hard for Kiefer to see the board to determine who had gotten points.
But, as so many other elite athletes have experienced, Kiefer found a new relaxation in the situation. Freed from competitive nervousness, in part because she wasn’t really expecting to win, Kiefer simply let her body do what it was trained to do: fence brilliantly.
“It had been a pretty rough day, because of all these things going on outside the fencing,” Kiefer said. But once on the strip, she found she had a new focus.
Exempt from the preliminary rounds, Kiefer quickly got through to the final 16. There, she won 15-12 over world silver medalist Carolin Golubytskyi of Germany, to move to the quarterfinals, where again, it seemed easy. She beat Russia’s Yana Alborova 15-4, and then beat 2009 world champion Aida Shanaeva of Russia 15-10 in the semifinals.
Still, Kiefer didn’t really expect to win the final, in which she would face reigning world champion Arianna Errigo of Italy, the top-ranked foil fencer in the world.
“I’ve never beaten her before, and she’s multi-time world champion,” Kiefer said. But Kiefer had already decided she wanted to be more aggressive against Errigo and figured she had nothing to lose, after all that had happened.
When she did score the last touch, with the weird lighting, she wasn’t sure what happened.
|Lee Kiefer (L) warms up with Kyomi Hirata of Japan during a practice session ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL Centre on July 24, 2012 in London.|
“I was confused,” Kiefer said. “I was just as surprised as anyone else when I won.”
Her first world cup title wasn’t a bad outcome on such a rough day.
Kiefer knows she can fence with the best in the world when she’s on her game, but still, the victory was a major confidence builder as she prepares to take a year off from college at Notre Dame to prepare for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
After leading the Fighting Irish in the upcoming conference championships and, if all goes well, the NCAA championships, Kiefer will return to her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, to train for Rio.
She got a taste of success at the 2012 Games in London, finishing fifth, a promising performance by the then-18-year-old for USA Fencing — and the best by an American in the women’s foil since 1956. But she lost to Errigo, the eventual silver medalist.
The Kiefer family has played a major role in helping Kentucky become a hotbed for elite fencers. In fact, Kiefer has usually been able to find quality training partners without leaving her house.
She was introduced to the sport by her father Steven, who was captain of the fencing team at Duke in the 1980s. Lee’s older sister Alex has won world cup medals and was NCAA champion in 2011 fencing for Harvard. Younger brother Axel is a rising star in the sport. When they were young, Alex used to beat Lee, making her cry.
In part because of the Kiefer family, the Bluegrass Fencing Club in Lexington has become a great training ground, led by coach Amgad Khazbak, the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s foil coach.
Lee Kiefer says being pushed to fence was hard initially — because the payoff wasn’t immediate.
“Fencing is a hard sport, it takes a long time to become good,” she said. “We all wanted to quit.”
But Steven Kiefer recognized talent — and a certain seriousness — that he thought might translate to success.
“He was like, ‘No, you guys can’t quit,’” Kiefer said.
“As we got older, we put more expectations and pressure on ourselves, more than he did,” Kiefer added. “We’re all pretty intense.”
Rio may be Kiefer’s last opportunity for an Olympic medal. By the time the 2020 Games open in Tokyo, Kiefer hopes to be wearing a different white suit — those worn by doctors.
“It’s my last chance,” she said. “I could keep fencing if I wanted, but I think it will be time.”
Medicine is the other family business. Steven Kiefer is a neurosurgeon and mom Theresa a psychiatrist. Alex is now in medical school. Lee will also be studying for medical school entrance exams during her year off.
“Right now I’m really happy where I am,” Lee Kiefer said. “I’ve never had these type of results, but at the same time there are a lot of areas where I can improve.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.