By Alex Forkner
Lee Kiefer’s Olympic dreams started when she was just a youngster sitting behind a school desk.
“You know how little kids, on their goal sheets that teachers make them fill out, say ‘Oh, I want to be in the Olympics one day’? I always wrote that on mine just as a long-term goal, and now it’s a short-term goal,” 18-year-old Kiefer said. “I guess [I’ve always dreamed about it], but it was never necessarily realistic until a few years ago.”
While most childhood ambitions fall by the wayside, Kiefer’s will actually be realized when she travels to London to compete as the United States’ top female fencer.
Lee Kiefer with her bronze medal from 2011 Senior World Championships (Photo from USA Fencing)
Kiefer, who graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School this spring, recognized the opportunity to qualify for the 2012 Summer Games shortly after the Beijing Olympics, when a lot of her elder American counterparts decided to hang up their masks.
“After the 2008 Olympics a lot of the top foilers retired, so at that point, me and a few other girls became the top athletes,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe if I keep working then I can stay here and maybe get to the next Olympics.’”
The nerves have not hit her yet, Kiefer said, but she supposes once the plane touches down in England that could change. Right now she is focused on training, and though her routine hasn’t changed, its frequency has. She estimates she has trained about twice as much as she would for other competitions, but Kiefer is no stranger to training.
Kiefer started fencing as a child and hasn’t stopped since. Her father, Steve, a former fencing captain at Duke, has groomed Lee and her older sister and younger brother to excel at foiling. Kiefer said the time spent sparring with her siblings helped them develop.
“All of us—before my sister went to college—we all went to every single practice together, so it wasn’t only a lot of bonding time but we all made each other better through constant practice,” she said. “We’re all pretty strong, so it was good practice.”
Alex Kiefer, Lee’s older sister, won a NCAA championship at Harvard in 2011. Axel, who plans to follow in his sisters’ footwork, won his first Cadet European Cup this past season.
But the Kiefer kids weren’t always so keen on the sport. Endless practice and complicated technique took its toll.
“Of course we got sick of it, but there’s a point when you know you have to keep working if you want to be good at something,” Lee said. “You just can’t dabble around with everything.”
Kiefer said she never seriously considered abandoning fencing for a more common sport, but did try out a few different recreational pursuits.
“After I started fencing, my parents sometimes let me do other activities,” she said. “In fourth grade, I played intramural basketball, and that was pretty fun. We’ve always just been so busy. Right before we started getting serious with fencing, I relaxed a little bit with horseback riding. It was fun, but I was so little when I started. Instead of riding the horses, I preferred to pick flowers on the ground.”
Fencing was her clear forte. Kiefer won her first medal in international competition with a bronze at the 2008 Cadet World Championships. She has since won 16 gold medals in either individual or team competitions. In October, she won bronze at the Senior World Championships, making her the only athlete in the world to earn individual podium finishes at the Senior, Junior and Cadet World Championships in 2011, having won silver in Junior and Cadet in April.
Competing in a sport requiring so much international travel can be draining, Kiefer said. Jetting all over the world to compete can be tough on her friendships and sleep schedule, but she has always found ways to manage.
“I’ve been home for two days in between all the tournaments and stuff, and I just really want to see (my friends), and they’re excited to see me too, but I don’t have time to,” she said. “It’s so upsetting, but hopefully I can see them before everyone goes off to college. Everyone is really excited for me. I’ll talk on the phone with them, or they’ll text me, so it’s nice keeping in contact like that.
“During the school year I remember when I would come home, I’d have to stay up late to do homework. This was before I had my license, so every time my mom came to pick me up and drive me to the house, I would just pass out in the car for like a 20-minute period. I would be so exhausted. I’m basically the nap queen; I think that’s how I survive.”
Juggling practice, travel and schoolwork hasn’t been easy, but she credits her teachers and the administration at Dunbar with accommodating her busy schedule and allowing her to make up missed work. She will attend Notre Dame in the fall on a fencing scholarship and is considering majoring in French and working to fulfill pre-med requirements.
Kiefer looks forward to the different approach college fencing will provide her.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun, because college fencing is more about the team experience,” she said. “It’s a little different being at your home club, because it consists of people who are six years old to people who are maybe 50 years old. In college, everyone is the same age, and you compete as a team that wants to win the NCAA. I love my club, but this is kind of a different way, and I’m excited to experience it.”
When Kiefer suits up in London, she will be facing some fencers who have been competing longer than she has been alive. Italy’s Valentina Vezzali, who defeated Kiefer in the Senior World Championships, is 38 and has won five gold medals. Going head-to-head with that type of experience can be daunting, but Kiefer seems unfazed. This won’t be her only shot at Olympic glory, as she’ll surely have a shot to qualify in 2016.
Kiefer prefers not to set a particular goal for these games, choosing instead to focus strictly on her performance and enjoying herself, a strategy that might pay off with a precious medal.
“I honestly just want to fence well and have fun, because when I do that I get good results,” she said. “Like when I had my best results, after the World Championships last year, it was because I felt like that, and I wasn’t going in there with crazy expectations that stress me out, so I think I’m going to take that approach when I get there.”
Homepage slider image from USA Fencing by Nicole Jomantas