(L-R) Jessica Zi Jia Guo (Canada) and Lee Kiefer compete in the women's fencing foil individual bout at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 5, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
LIMA, Peru – She is in a dimly-lit room on the top floor of the Lima Convention Center. Surrounded by black walls, marginal stadium seating and a handful of people, Lee Kiefer climbs up on an elevated piste – the fencer’s playing area. Running roughly 46 feet in length and five feet wide, this is her stage.
Lights reminiscent of a theatre setting illuminate her. After an exchange of formalities – a handshake and a test of the electronic scoring equipment – her fight begins. She earns her third-straight Pan American Games individual gold after 3:11 ticks off the official clock. It’s a 15-10 win over Canada’s Jessica Zi Jia Guo. She trains four hours a day, five days a week, for a final that lasts about as long as a television sitcom.
With the win, she becomes the only fencer in history, regardless of nation, disciplines or gender, to earn three gold medals at the Pan Am Games.
“It feels so good,” she says. “All the girls are such tough competitors. And we’ve just come off a long season, world championships, so it really feels amazing to be up there on the podium.”
The International Fencing Federation’s (FIE) fifth-ranked fencer in the world is still not used to the spotlight of the elevated piste. That is, until the match begins. It then becomes second nature to her.
“I’m a little bit nervous before,” she begins. “The whole waiting thing makes me antsy. But once I’m in ‘en garde’ position and the ref says ‘fence,’ I know what to do. I’ve had training. I have good instincts. But up until then, I can’t wait to fence.”
Only her team final remains. For fencers, oftentimes it’s an all-or-nothing scenario at international multi-sport competitions. It’s exceptionally rare for fencers to master two different types of sword.
“It’s something we do since we’re young,” she said of the pressure. At these Pan Am Games, she’s also able to watch her fiance, Gerek Meinhardt, compete in the men’s individual and team foil events.
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Kiefer’s cunning is on elegant display throughout the event. In one group play match, her opponent, Daylen Moreno of Cuba, lunges for her torso to score a point. Kiefer intelligently backs up and sets up a counter attack. Her opponent, off-balance and standing wide, is unable to avoid her blade. Kiefer scores a point easily en route to a 5-1 victory.
She shows her craft once more during her quarterfinal. As the fighters come in close, their weapons tangled, she twirls around. In one swift motion, her sword is set free and contacts her opponent’s right shoulder for yet another point. She wins her quarterfinal, 15-9.
In her semifinal match against Brazil’s Ana Bulcao, she uses runs of 7-0 and 6-0 to win easily, 15-3. After the first round, she had already scored 14 of those points.
Her final match took a little more time. Guo, the 17th-ranked fighter in the world according to the FIE, managed to score 10 points, the most Kiefer gave up in any match. She conceded a total of just three points in her five group play matches. Kiefer explains the final match in her own words.
“Jessica is a young athlete,” she said. “[She’s] very talented, and I knew I had to go in there, be very intense, and use my experience.”
“I tried my best,” said Guo to a Canadian reporter nearby.
The two have met before. And they will probably meet again when the 2019-2020 fencing season begins in late August. That’s when qualification for Olympics Games Tokyo 2020 kicks into overdrive.
“This is my last go-around,” she said of aiming to qualify for her third Olympic Games. “Really, we’re just trying to come in with good energy, just be happy, and be our most authentic selves.”
While the Pan Am Games didn’t count for qualification, Kiefer said competing here is an “honor, and – for once – very fun and less stressful.”
Nonetheless, her stellar performances should also inspire more people to try this unique sport, which is primarily popular in European countries.
“I think people who try it, they’ll find it’s very complex but very fun,” she said. “I love fencing because it offers a platform to be creative and athletic. So I think if people had the opportunity to try it, they would really love it.”