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How Notre Dame Helped Produce And Foster Some Of The World's Greatest Fencing Talent

By Leah Jenk | Feb. 28, 2019, 10:57 a.m. (ET)

Gerek Meinhardt and Lee Kiefer pose for a photo with their NCAA awards in 2014.


Next month the University of Notre Dame fencing team will compete for its third-straight NCAA national championship. Not only has the Fighting Irish established itself as a collegiate powerhouse, it has also trained nine Olympic fencers.

The most decorated fencer in U.S. history, Mariel Zagunis, competed for Notre Dame from 2004-06 and also has won two individual Olympic gold medals and two team Olympic bronze medals in a career that has spanned four Games and is not yet over.

More recently, 2017 graduate and four-time individual NCAA champion Lee Kiefer and two-time NCAA champion Gerek Meinhardt, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2013 and master’s in 2015, balanced their time between competing for Notre Dame and Team USA.

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Currently ranked third and ninth, respectively, in the world rankings, Kiefer and Meinhardt transcended the program. Kiefer is a three-time world championship medalist with team gold, silver and individual bronze, and Meinhardt a five-time world medalist with three team silvers and two individual bronzes.

“Of course I recall every single moment of recruiting them,” said Notre Dame fencing head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia. “Their talent comes once every 25 years.”

Kiefer competed at the Olympic Games London 2012 and in the same month attended her freshman orientation at Notre Dame. Kvaratskhelia recalls promising Kiefer that with the development Notre Dame can offer that London would not be her last Games. As fate, and a lot of hard work, would have it, Kiefer competed at the 2016 Games in Rio before returning to her senior year at Notre Dame.

Her Notre Dame teammate and now fiancé, Meinhardt, is a three-time Olympian (2008, 2012, 2016) himself. At 18 years old at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 he became the youngest U.S. Olympic fencer in history.

“It was definitely tricky,” Meinhardt admitted of balancing being a student-athlete and Olympian. “But Notre Dame has the most amazing support system and my coach here coordinated with my personal coach to be super strategic.”

To qualify for the NCAA national championship, a student-athlete must fence in a minimum of three of the eight competitions each season. This allowed time for Kiefer and Meinhardt to travel internationally for world cups throughout the collegiate season. 

“I tell my athletes not everyone can have the talent of Lee and Gerek, but everyone can be a great teammate like they were,” said Kvaratskhelia. “They set the tone of our program and the culture has been handed down to every athlete since.”

In 2018, Notre Dame fencing established the Lee Kiefer/Gerek Meinhardt Award which is “given to the fencer who gives their time selflessly and humbly in training, as judged by their teammates and coaches. This recipient goes above and beyond expectations, helping teammates prepare for tournaments while pursuing their own passion for the sport.”

There is no doubt the contributions Kiefer and Meinhardt made to Notre Dame fencing, but they are quick to say how much they received from the program as well.

“We grew as so much more than fencers,” Kiefer said. “Becoming a better athlete is about more than just getting stronger. I realized why I love fencing.”

Kiefer and Meinhardt now live and train in Lexington, Kentucky, where Kiefer is also in medical school at the University of Kentucky. They find time to plan their September wedding, but are focused on the qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

In the meantime, Notre Dame fencing continues to succeed. Last week the Fighting Irish men and women both won the Atlantic Coast Conference championships, and for the first time in program history they swept all six individual titles as well.

As for winning a third straight national championship in March, Kvaratskhelia says, “We’ve just won two, there’s no pressure! Just a lot of hard work and a little bit of Irish luck.”