Science and fencing flow through the veins of two-time Olympian Lee Kiefer. They’re engrained in her DNA.
Kiefer recently soared to the top of the foil fencing world, claiming the No. 1 ranking after winning the Long Beach Foil Grand Prix last month. Also in March, she won the NCAA fencing championship and helped lead Notre Dame to the team title.
In capturing the collegiate title, Kiefer became the third fencer in history to win four individual NCAA fencing titles.
Her track to success didn’t come alone, though, or without thoughts on retiring.
“At this point I have lot of resources and positive help,” Kiefer said. “I think I have a pretty good balance in my life right now, and I honestly think what makes me good at winning is that I hate to lose.”
Kiefer will graduate Notre Dame next month with a degree in science pre-professional studies. Before she left Thursday for the FIE Tauberbischofsheim World Cup in Germany, she squeezed in one more class.
“My class ends at 3:15, and I’ll be in a car by 3:20 to try and catch a 6 o’clock flight,” she said.
Kiefer starts competing on Saturday, but insisted her classes come first.
“Academics are far more emphasized than fencing in our family,” she said.
She and her siblings are following the path of their father, Steven Kiefer, who was a team captain for the men’s fencing team at Duke. Steven, who is now a neurosurgeon, got his kids involved in fencing at an early age.
Lee’s mother, Teresa, is a psychiatrist. Lee’s older sister, Alex, fenced at Harvard and is now in medical school. Their younger brother, Axel, is a sophomore All-American in fencing and pre-med major at Notre Dame.
Lee plans to enroll at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine to pursue a career as a surgeon.
“I feel like it fits my personality, and I know what it’s like to be under pressure and perform,” she said. “I have the dexterity for it, too.”
After winning the NCAA foil title in each of her first three years, Kiefer took a year off to prepare for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“Before Rio I was 99 percent sure I would retire after Rio,” said Kiefer, who lost in the Round of 16 in Rio. “I would go to medical school and start my career. But after Rio I didn’t feel satisfied with my fencing. I felt like I needed much improvement. Now I’m enjoying it again.”
Now she plans to go to medical school and take a year sabbatical to train for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She said the key will be balancing her training with school work.
“I’ll have to be more organized with my schedule, and even more disciplined,” Kiefer said. “I have to train smart. It doesn’t mean I’ll be worse or out of shape, but better prepared.”
Before she heads to Lexington, Kentucky, which is next to her hometown of Versailles, Kiefer will look to keep her hot streak going.
In this fencing season, Kiefer has won two grand prix gold medals and a world cup bronze, in addition to team silver and bronze at world cups. Even still, she didn’t foresee a No. 1 ranking going into the Long Beach Grand Prix.
“Going into the tournament we didn’t know I was in striking distance of the top ranking,” Kiefer said. “I won the tournament, and when they updated the points standings we saw I was No. 1. It was unbelievable, one of the things you always dream of.”
The dream began when she was 7, lugging heavy bags around to competitions. She said at first she hated it.
“It was hard and it was awkward,” she said. “There was bending of the knees and doing weird lunges. I didn’t like it.”
Then she got good, and then really good. She started having success on the national scene, and she saw continued success on the cadet international circuit, which led to a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.
Later that year she enrolled at Notre Dame for fencing and education, and she’s been golden at both. And her pursuit of science and fencing continues.
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.