U.S. fencer Lee Kiefer smiles and holds a medal aloft after winning gold in the women's foil at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Lee Kiefer’s (Notre Dame Fencing) path to becoming the first American woman to win gold in individual foil began in earnest in the dining room of her childhood home.
It was the perfect spot considering the significant role the sport has played in her family.
It starts with her father, Steven, who discovered fencing in college at Duke. He played football in high school but was not “fast enough, big enough or strong enough” to continue, he said. When he arrived in Durham, North Carolina, he was looking for something new, and he stumbled upon the fencing club and eventually made it to varsity.
Sister Alexandra Kiefer went on to be a fencer at Harvard. Brother Axel Kiefer fenced at Notre Dame.
Now Lee, 27, a four-time individual Women’s Foil NCAA champion and First Team All-American at Notre Dame, has secured gold in her third Olympics, beating Inna Deriglazova of Russia, 15-13.
“What just happened?’’ she said after the victory. “What just happened?’’
Lee may have been stunned, but she worked hard to get to the podium. Fencing has long been a family affair.
“It was a real part of my undergraduate existence,” Steven said. “It was a wonderful experience and to see the kids not only take part in it, but thrive in it, it's something we all can enjoy. I enjoy the sport, so getting to watch it and see it still is wonderful.”
Steven married Teresa and had three children who followed in his footsteps. Their mother’s fencing career, on the other hand, was short. It’s the family joke that she only took fencing lessons as a requirement during her freshman year of college.
The children were exposed to the sport at a young age, accompanying their father to local fencing tournaments. When they took a trip to the Louisville Fencing Center, they were mesmerized. They all wanted to compete, just like their dad.
But for the Kiefer family, which was based in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time, it was difficult to make the one-and-a-half hour drive to the Lexington Fencing Center every day.
So, they improvised.
They set up space in their dining room so that the whole family could practice. There was no furniture set up yet so it was a perfect space to fine-tune their skills. And Steven was ready to show them.
"When I was around seven, he decided to pick his sword back up again," Kiefer told “Southern Living.” "We watched him do this strange sport that we had never seen before. And he started teaching us some footwork in our dining room."
To supplement the dining room training, they would go to the Louisville Fencing Center about twice a week. Their family “vacations” would be traveling to fencing tournaments.
At Notre Dame, Lee thrived. guiding her, Fighting Irish coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said, was one of the “best experiences” he has ever had.
“It’s just the personal qualities, the virtuous qualities, the never-give-up attitude (and) how strong she is as a human and how compassionate she is,” Kvaratskhelia said.
As Kvaratskhelia got to know the family during the recruiting process, he learned to appreciate the positive impact Steven and Teresa had on their kids.
“They never made excuses for their children,” he said. “They gave their full support and full love, but demanded absolute excellence out of them. ... That's why their kids are so amazing. It’s a lot of fencing history in that one family.”
Fencing even extends outside of their bloodlines.
Axel is dating a fellow fencer from Notre Dame, and Alexandra (Alex) is married to a former Harvard fencing teammate. Lee married fellow Team USA and former Notre Dame fencer Gerek Meinhardt.
She and Meinhardt met on the fencing circuit. They first became friends during tournament travels, and the rest, well, is history.
“They’re soulmates,” Steven said.
Both found their way to Tokyo, with Meinhardt competing tonight in men’s foil.
Before Lee Kiefer left for Tokyo, she expressed to her parents how excited they were to compete.
“We feel good about it,” Steven recalled them saying. “We've done everything we can do. We have no regrets, no matter how it goes, we’ve put it all in.”
Considering Lee’s gold medal, it’s clear that’s exactly what she did.