Gerek Meinhardt reacts as he competes in the Men's Foil Individual Semifinal at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 6, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Each Tuesday leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will be held in the summer of 2021, TeamUSA.org will introduce you to an athlete you should know prior to Tokyo – as part of the “Tokyo Tuesday” series. There’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Follow along on social media with the hashtag #TokyoTuesday.
Gerek Meinhardt has competed in three Olympic Games and qualified for a fourth in Tokyo, but right now fencing isn’t the only thing on his plate.
Meinhardt, 30, is a first-year medical student at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
“I had to go back and take undergraduate classes to do all my science prerequisites and my classmates were all about 10 years younger than me, but I was able to do that and I’m happy now to be on this track,” said the 2016 men’s foil team bronze medalist.
Meinhardt was always interested in medicine growing up, he said, but he was also an elite fencer at a young age. Traveling the world to compete, focusing on training and becoming the country’s youngest Olympic fencer ever at the age of 17 didn’t seem to mesh with pursuing medicine in college, so he went to Notre Dame and studied business.
“At one point in college I spoke to my advisor about making a switch because I was still interested in medicine,” said Meinhardt, who won two individual NCAA championships and was a four-time All-American. “But after hearing I would obviously have to take an extra year or two to perform all my required science courses I, ironically, decided that I didn’t want to invest that time and take a step backward in a way. So I doubled down and stayed at Notre Dame and earned my MBA and worked for a few years in the business world.”
The idea of pursuing medicine never really left his mind, however, and in fact pushed its way to the forefront as his relationship with Lee Kiefer developed. An Olympic fencer as well, Kiefer comes from a family of doctors and is currently in her third year of medical school at the University of Kentucky, near where she grew up. About two years ago, Meinhardt said, he began thinking about his life after Tokyo and what he wanted to do.
“I did some shadowing and speaking with the physicians about what their lives were like, pros and cons,” he said, “and eventually decided, with their help, that I shouldn’t worry about making a change too late in my life, even though I was going to be a non-traditional student and a bit older than my classmates.”
Had 2020 shaped up the way it was supposed to, of course, Meinhardt would be singularly focused on this next chapter of life. He planned to compete in Tokyo this past summer, retire from competition and move on with his plan to become Dr. Meinhardt. Both he and Kiefer, who were married in September 2019, took the last academic year off to focus on training for the 2020 Games.
Instead, they ended up having five or six months with no school, no tournaments, no traveling and certainly no Olympics.
Now they are not only husband and wife and fellow med students but also one another’s primary training partners as they do their best to keep sharp until tournaments resume.
Even as a 9-year-old, Meinhardt said, there was a competition every few months, so this extended break has been strange, to say the least.
“I know (the International Fencing Federation) is working on tentatively starting back up in January, but even if we do have a tournament then it will be almost a whole year since our last competition, which ended in February,” he said. “We’ve had good motivation to continue training and stay in shape, and that hasn’t been a problem, but it’s definitely been weird because typically you have a tournament every two or three weeks, and depending on how you do you come away with things you can work on and want to improve. It serves as a way for you to evaluate where you stand in relation to your competition and things you want to accomplish.
“It’s very strange being eight months removed from our last competition because even on days where I feel really good training, I have to wonder because I’m not competing against the top Italians or the top Russians here in Lexington, Kentucky. I may feel great, but how do I stack up against the people I’m going to be competing against?”
Meinhardt qualified for his fourth Olympic Games back in February, one day before the men’s foil team stretched its world cup medal streak to 15 competitions. He’s the first U.S. men’s fencer to make four Olympic teams since Mike Marx competed from 1984-1996.
“I had several injuries in my career, and multiple times I said that I was going to go through one more quadrennial and retire and be happy with what I accomplished and that it was time to let my body have a break because I did have all these chronic injuries,” he said. “So in that sense I am very surprised, and from my second Olympics on I’ve always been grateful every day for every tournament I’ve been able to compete in. The past two years I’ve felt really healthy and really strong, probably more than I did 10 years ago. It’s weird to think I’m one of the most experienced and older fencers on the circuit because I really don’t feel that way. I still feel like I have something to prove and that I’m going to show what I’ve got.”