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Sunday Brunch: Kanaley Winners Go Above and Beyond

May 7, 2017

By John Heisler

Last Thursday night the annual winners of the University of Notre Dame Kanaley Award took center stage at the OSCARS, the yearly athletic department gala to honor top-achieving Irish.

The Kanaley Awards represent the most impressive combinations of success in athletics, academic and service. They go to those seniors judged “most exemplary as students and leaders.”

These four individuals-Lee Kiefer (women’s fencing), Kaleigh Olmstead (women’s soccer), Sergio Perkovic (men’s lacrosse) and Monica Robinson (women’s tennis)-represent NCAA champions (both team and individual), All-Americans and All-Atlantic Coast Conference players.

They’ve won ACC Post-Graduate Scholarships, boast glossy grade-point averages and have made a difference in the Notre Dame/Michiana community.

They all possess resumes for which any college student would trade.

Law school professor Tricia Bellia, chair of the University’s Faculty Board on Athletics-which makes the selections-will tell you that assignment is a labor of love.

Still, Irish fans are spoiled because the combination of top-flight accomplishments on the field, in the classroom and in the community are more expectations than anomalies at Notre Dame.

So what made this quartet (all of them team captains in 2016-17) stand out?

Consider what those closest to them have to offer about the four honorees:

–Kiefer (from Versailles, Kentucky) has achieved almost mind-boggling athletic success, helping her 2017 Notre Dame team win an NCAA title and winning four consecutive NCAA individual titles (that has happened only 19 times at the NCAA Division I level)-as a pre-professional major to boot.

Irish head fencing coach Gia Kvaratskhelia calls coaching Kiefer the greatest honor of his career:

“During my 20-year coaching career, I have had the opportunity to teach Olympians, NCAA champions and USA Fencing champions and finalists. I can say, without hesitation, that none possess the combination of determination, work ethic, talent and humility that define Lee.

“Athletically, her accomplishments are staggering. Frankly, it’s difficult to encompass the full scope of her athletic success. Reaching these heights on their own requires a grueling level of discipline. What separates Lee even more is the way she brings the same tenacity she displays on the fencing strip to all areas of her life. Within our program’s community, Lee serves as an ideal team captain–leading her teammates vocally and by example, while remaining fiercely loyal to Notre Dame, our program’s values and her teammates.

“Throughout it all, Lee remains one of the most humble and gracious individuals you can ever meet. She is a paragon of the ideals that the NCAA, Atlantic Coast Conference and Notre Dame value in their student-athletes.

“Notre Dame fencing boasts nine team national championships, 34 individual national championships and more than 300 All-Americans. However, Lee’s success is unsurpassed in our

program’s history. Despite this, she stays grounded and approachable and displays true care, friendship and loyalty towards her teammates.

“She consistently values the overall team’s success over her own individual victories. While her world-class athletic and academic responsibilities leave little time for other pursuits, Lee is integral to our team’s community. Even before officially serving as captain this past season, Lee’s Herculean work ethic and dedication have consistently elevated those around her.”

Kvaratskhelia and other Irish fencers were amazed on the final day of competition in Indianapolis at the 2017 NCAA Championships when Kiefer, minutes away from her foil title bout, spent her time recruiting teammates to help Elyssa Kleiner train the following week for the world championships. One day Kiefer won both a team and individual NCAA title-the next she was back on the fencing strip in the north dome of the Joyce Center helping make a teammate better. She currently ranks number one in the world in women’s foil.

–Olmstead (like Kiefer, she is headed to medical school) was the women’s soccer team MVP, an All-ACC pick and an all-tournament selection at the 2016 ACC Championship.

Her coach, Theresa Romagnolo, was more taken with the way her team captain led:

“Kaleigh and her senior class took over a team that had graduated a great number of starters and leadership and her class took on the task of leading in a different way with a lot of inexperienced players.

“They did a tremendous job, making each player feel important and valued and pushing the charge of demanding a tougher, hard-working mentality every day. As a captain she ultimately was responsible for exemplifying this behavior and demanding it of others and she did so wonderfully. Not only did she play with great intensity and quality, but she also inspired others to raise their levels and believe in their abilities to do so. It was wonderful to see her grow into a leader who learned how to motivate others around her for the good of the team.

“One of our three losses this year came when Kaleigh could not travel to play in the game due to injury. Not only did we miss her performance on the field but most importantly her leadership.”

Olmstead (from The Woodlands, Texas), who will take a gap year before beginning her medical studies, began her own fundraising project at Notre Dame-NoBody Is Perfect, designed to combat eating disorders and raise resources for the Feeding Hope fund for clinical research at NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association).

–Perkovic (from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan), already a two-time first-team All-American for the Irish, knows what his future holds thanks to a Notre Dame degree coming in a few weeks in finance-with a job lined up at Credit Suisse in New York City.

That’s only a sliver of what Perkovic has brought to his highly rated Irish men’s lacrosse unit.

Pat Healy, a starting senior defender on the Notre Dame squad and one of Perkovic’s closest friends, appreciates the way his classmate conducts his business in somewhat of a quiet, low-key manner:

“His work ethic is unparalleled on our team-he does it by example, in the classroom, on the field. He’s always pushing himself and that just raises the level of everyone else around him. That’s the biggest thing. It’s his determination to be successful in everything he does.

“He brings other guys along with him-he’s been a great mentor to a lot of the younger guys on offense and the team in general. He’s always been a good leader.”

–Robinson, a second-team All-ACC selection for 2017, has won 132 combined singles and doubles matches and ranked as high as 10th nationally in doubles. She may eventually head to graduate school and hopes to give pro tennis a whirl. But her most impressive credentials are all the ways she has given back.

A double major in marketing and Spanish, Robinson (from Valley Center, California) authored and illustrated a children’s book for her Spanish major. Vice president of Pangborn Hall, she also was a Dream Team member with Madison Elementary School in South Bend.

Said Irish women’s tennis coach Jay Louderback:

“Monica’s time spent with our adopted young cancer patient, Sophia, is amazing. Sophia signed her national letter of intent with our program Monica’s freshman year. Since then, Monica has accompanied Sophia to several medical treatments, taken her to the movies and attends Sophia’s birthday parties.

“Sophia and her parents are incredibly thankful for Monica’s commitment over the last four years. Every time Sophia attends our matches and sees Monica, her eyes light up. You can see on her face how much the time Monica spends with her means. I think this has been Monica’s most important accomplishment in her time at Notre Dame.”

Louderback also loves Robinson’s approach to sportsmanship.

“In my 38 years of coaching college tennis, Monica has been as fair and honest on her (line) calls as any student-athlete I have coached. She was once overruled by an umpire on one of her calls (which actually was correct). After the match Monica apologized to her opponent for the overrule.

“It sounds like a small thing, but it was very telling.”

The Kanaley Awards for years were presented at Commencement, with the rest of the student body often unaware of the winners. That changed with the introduction of a year-end athletic honors banquet and has more recently been highlighted by the OSCARS event.

Only one winner was chosen through 1965. Three honorees were designated for the first time in 1971. The list of winners reached four in 1990, six in 1994 and as many as seven in 2009.

Robinson is the 13th women’s tennis player to be celebrated with the Kanaley, Olmstead represents the 11th women’s soccer player to win, Kiefer is the eighth women’s fencing honoree and Perkovic is the fourth men’s lacrosse player feted.

Of the 218 overall winners, 30 have come from the Irish football program, 15 from men’s track and field, 13 each from baseball, men’s soccer and men’s fencing and 12 from men’s basketball.

Carol Lally (women’s basketball) qualified as the first female winner in 1979. Among women’s sports, 13 Kanaley winners have come from tennis, 11 from soccer, nine each from basketball and volleyball and eight each from fencing and softball.

Check back in a dozen years.

The odds are good the resumes of Kiefer, Olmstead, Perkovic and Robinson will be shining just as brightly.

As longtime national radio commentator Paul Harvey used to close his pithy vignettes, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on