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When the U.S. women’s foil fencing team won gold at world championships last year, it may have come as a surprise. It was not only a first for an American foil team – male or female – but it was also the first time the team had won a gold together at any major international competition.
If you ask the team’s three veterans, however, they’ll tell you it was a long time coming.
Lee Kiefer, Nzingha Prescod and Nicole Ross have known each other since they were kids – for about 15 years, to be exact. They grew up fencing against or alongside one another and have a bond that goes far beyond teammates.
The three nearly finish each other’s sentences. Tears well up in their eyes when they tell stories about their friendship and talk about one another’s success.
While that historic world title at the 2018 world championships – their eighth senior worlds together – is their favorite memory together, now, they’re pushing to achieve their ultimate dream: to win a gold at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as a team.
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“[Starting out] we were still kind of young and just going through the motions a little bit. And along the way we all developed these crazy dreams to win the Olympics together,” said Kiefer, a 24-year-old who is currently ranked third in the world.
The trio competed in the team event at the Olympic Games London 2012, and Kiefer and Prescod also made it to the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Ross would have joined them in Rio if women’s team foil was on the 2016 program and a third spot available there. In 2012, they finished in sixth place in the team event.
Not only are the Games the peak level of competition for the sport, but working together takes the importance of the competition to another level.
“Competing with [Kiefer and Prescod] has been the highlight of my career and the greatest joy in fencing for me,” explained Ross, who turned 30 earlier this year. “To have one more chance, to me, there’s nothing higher than that.”
The U.S. women's foil team pose for a photo together.
There is also an extra sense of pride in watching loved ones succeed.
“It would mean everything to make it to Tokyo with these girls just because we’ve been working so hard as individuals and as a team,” Kiefer explained. “We truly know each other’s struggles and hopes and dreams.”
Training and competing alongside each other is not only rewarding, but it leads to a greater performance on the strip as well.
“I think there is an extra effort, I’m speaking for myself, that I feel like I put out when these girls are in my box because I feel like I never want to disappoint them,” Prescod, 26, said. “I know they want this so badly, so there’s an extra pressure when someone you care so much about is behind you.”
Not only have Kiefer, Prescod and Ross made history in fencing, but they are also leading the charge of a new era for the sport in the United States. When Kiefer was named No. 1 in the world in women’s foil in 2017, it marked the first time an American fencer had ever held the honor. Prescod, meanwhile, became the first African-American woman to earn an individual medal at world championships when she earned bronze in 2015.
What these women are achieving is about more than just medals and even about more than friendship: it is about the future of fencing for women in the United States.
“I feel like generations before us and our generation have really set the tone for just being on the top and dominating, which is really different from when I started fencing,” Prescod said. “We’ve really helped to change that story, and it’s cool to be a part of that.”
Next, all three will compete individually at an FIE Grand Prix stop beginning May 3 in Germany, where they are all ranked among the top 15. This summer, they will look to defend their team crown at world championships in Budapest, Hungary.
While every day of training is important and each competition significant, all three of the athletes have one eye on the ultimate goal.
“For athletes who compete in Olympic sports, we live to compete at the Olympic Games,” Ross said. “It’s the one thing that transcends all sport.
“It’s just a celebration of all the work we’ve been doing, but to have our journey come full circle together… there wouldn’t be anything better.”