May 5, 2015
If there were an international competition for awesomeness, without a doubt Lee Kiefer would win that, too.
The fencer from Versailles, Ky., not only dominates as a world-champion foilist but also maintains an exceptional GPA as a junior in the science pre-professional track at the University of Notre Dame. She’s the only person in the world to win gold medals at six consecutive Pan American Games; she’s ranked No. 3 in the world and No. 1 in the United States in the women’s senior foil division; and she was just named women’s fencing Scholar-Athlete of the Year by the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
To top it off, she’s humble, articulate, intuitive, warm and funny — a truly splendid human being.
Following in The Family Footsteps
Kiefer’s father was a stand-out fencer in the early 1980s when he captained the team at Duke University. Steven Kiefer, M.D., is a neurosurgeon near Lexington, Ky., and his wife Teresa is a psychiatrist. Their oldest daughter, Alexandra, graduated from Harvard College where she reigned as the NCAA women’s foil champion in 2011 and is nearing completion of her first year in medical school at University of Louisville. Lee will take next year off from school to focus on training for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio and studying for the MCAT exam. Youngest family member Axel will arrive at Notre Dame this upcomingfall as a freshman and has already made a name for himself in international fencing, taking second place in men’s foil at the Junior World Championships last year in Bulgaria.
Lee remembers accompanying her dad to local fencing tournaments when she was very young and afterwards asking him to show her the footwork.
“It was so weird and random, we were in the garage and I was so little,” Kiefer recalls. “One of the best things was that my brother and sister also fence so we have all these memories of car trips to tournaments, getting mad at each other like siblings do but also having really neat family experiences growing up.”
She began competing nationally at eight years old: “At my first tournament, I think I got 45th out of 50. I had no idea at all what was going on,” she laughs at her recollection. “For a while I was that little kid who just kind of wandered around with no sense of what was happening, and then there was a period where I would get really upset and do a lot of crying because I hated to lose. Fencing is not exactly the most immediately gratifying sport to participate in!
“Eventually I turned that into being really competitive, so I didn’t necessarily have the greatest start to the sport but I developed and matured; my siblings and parents and coach were a huge part of that whole process of growing up.
“Seeing the older fencers as role models, watching how they handled themselves at competitions, knowing they were fencing internationally and going off to college: all of that kind of helped motivate me beyond the little kid mentality.”
Good Fencers Make Good Neighbors
By age 13, Kiefer was already competing internationally.
“My first overseas trip was to Slovakia. The girls I trained with would all enter the same competitions and we all traveled together, so I got to be really close with them through the years. My older sister was with me on those trips and that made a difference, helping me feel comfortable and safe.”
Now a seasoned traveler, Kiefer has competed on every continent except Antarctica. She’s been to Poland, Russia, France, Hungary, Italy, Algeria, Canada, England, China, Columbia, Bulgaria, South Korea Cuba, Germany and Chile… and that’s just in the last couple years.
“With the intensity of the tournament schedules and the need to get back to school as soon as possible, there’s not a lot of time for sight-seeing,” she admits, “but having this level of exposure to so many different places and cultures and people has definitely impacted [who I am and how I see others.]
“Being part of the team at Notre Dame has helped me grow into more of a leader. I’m not there yet — I feel like I haven’t developed as a person as much as I should have. It’s hard because I’m doing the same things I’ve been doing since high school and before that: school, training, travel… but I’ve become more of an adult and learned how to work with other people,” she explains. “The University as a whole really works together to support what its student-athletes are capable of doing and is very invested in our well-being. The way Notre Dame cares for us has made the difference in what I’ve been able to do and who I still hope to become.”
Kiefer reciprocates, returning the favor every time she competes.
“It’s always amazing standing on the medal podium, especially when you’re on the top,” she smiles. “When they play the National Anthem I will sometimes get a little choked up thinking about all that went in to getting there, how proud I am to compete for Notre Dame and the United States and that I can contribute to other people being proud as well.”
So where does she keep all those gold medals and trophies?
“We have this whole room in our house…” she rolls her eyes and leans back as though anticipating a negative reaction to what she’s just shared. “When you’ve got three kids who have each been competing for more than ten years, that’s a lot of medals. My mom is very artistic and always does something neat to display our awards, so for my Pan Am golds she has made these really cool shadow boxes with pictures from the competitions; they’re really neat.”
Humble, even about a room full of proof that she’s exceptional. Who wouldn’t want a neighbor like that?
If she’s not training or competing, chances are she’s studying.
“My favorite class so far is my parasitology course that I’m taking right now.”
Eliciting the anticipated negative reaction to that statement: check.
“Yeah, some of it is kind of gross but it’s really fascinating to learn about all the different life cycles of the parasites and how they affect humans and animals differently,” she explains. “I just love that stuff,” she adds, and her delight is unmistakable.
On the flip side: “I hate talking in front of groups. Each of the seniors gives a speech to the team and I’m already trying to figure out how I can get out of that two years from now,” she admits seriously. “If it’s just [speaking to] a few of the girls on my team and I have tons of time to prepare then it might be ok, but talking to my entire team or any group of more than five people does not turn out well for me. I have extreme phobia of things like that. I hate speaking to groups.”
She also hated fencing, once upon a time. Maybe someday she’ll be president of the World Health Organization.
Growing up, Kiefer always dreamed of attending Duke like her dad, “but they didn’t have a foil coach at the time I was applying.” Her older sister loved Harvard, so for several years Lee assumed she’d go there, “since it would have been really fun to go to college with my sister.”
But she has no regrets about her decision to attend Notre Dame.
“If I had gone to Duke or Harvard I know fencing would not have had the role in my life that it has here at Notre Dame,” she asserts confidently. “The flexibility for international tournaments would not have been there and I wouldn’t have been able to go as far as I have with my sport. Choosing Notre Dame gave me the opportunity to balance the intense training schedule with world-class academics. I may have done more clubs and social activities [at another university], but I feel like here I’ve gotten the best of both worlds.”
Ironically, the thing that necessitates striving for balance is also what enables her to achieve it.
“I was very young when I went to my first Pan Am’s,” she realizes. “When you’re young, you fence without any inhibitions: you’re just there to compete, you’re in a cool place and it’s exciting, you’re not even thinking about winning because it just seems so out of the question.
“But after I had won three years in a row, it started being a way for me to qualify for the Olympics. I was earning points toward being ranked internationally. There’s been an evolution since my first one.”
As an example of that evolution and a window into the intricate balancing act that she carries out, she speaks about the challenge of competing against her Irish teammates and other student-athletes from the collegiate fencing scene.
“Everyone knows how I fence, so I have to keep changing my game in order to stay on top. A lot of that is knowing when to be patient and when to be aggressive and having confidence in my ability to make that determination at the exact right moment.
“Also it’s about having endurance to last through a competition to the end: everyone is tired from traveling and the strain of the tournament causes a lot of mental fatigue. I talk it out, I rely on my coaches and my boyfriend Gerek Meinhardt, who is also a really good fencer, to help me keep my nerves under control. It’s about finding a balance between calmness and intensity.”
In her mind, that has been the best thing about being at Notre Dame.
“My coaches have been so gracious and understanding of my schedule: I’m not expected to come in to practice the next day if I’ve just gotten back from an international trip or something, and my professors are great in terms of letting me work ahead if possible or take an exam late when I need to travel for competition. It means a lot of studying late at night so I can keep turning in my work, and I haven’t been in any clubs or done a lot of the things that kind of go with the college experience, but the sacrifice is definitely worth it.
“We spend time [as a team] talking about how we give up a lot of things but we also have so many opportunities that other people or most college kids will not have, so it’s a matter of perspective. Maybe when I come back for my senior year I’ll ease up on international competition and have time for regular college things…” she speculates.
Maybe she will. Maybe she’ll have Olympic gold from Rio hanging in a display at home. What’s certain is that she’ll maintain her winning attitude and commitment to excellence.
Fence like a champion today, Lee. Your Notre Dame family is with you all the way.
By Renee Peggs,