May 20, 2017
By John Heisler
At 5-foot-4 and less than 100 pounds, Lee Kiefer casts an unassuming shadow in her final days walking the University of Notre Dame campus.
Yet that ultra-slim silhouette is in direct opposition to the resume she leaves behind as an Irish student-athlete.
Those who match her strides should know they accompany a young woman who may well qualify as the most accomplished individual in the history of athletics at Notre Dame.
As a competitor for the United States at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, Kiefer, at age 18, already had proven herself as a world-class athlete in her sport of fencing before she ever attended a class at Notre Dame. In London she was the only teenager in the fencing field of 38 women and the youngest U.S. women’s foil entrant in 46 years (she finished fifth, falling in the quarterfinals to the eventual silver medalist).
Five years later (she skipped a year in South Bend to train for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro) she graduates today having not only lived up to but also probably exceeding anyone’s greatest expectations for Kiefer as a collegiate athlete.
She is that rare individual who started her college career as the best in the country in her craft and finished five years later having won virtually everything there was to win in her sport.
She won four consecutive NCAA individual titles in foil (the only other fencer to do that since the NCAA began sponsoring fencing in 1990 was Penn State’s Olga Kalinovskaya from 1993-96). In the process Kiefer led Notre Dame to the NCAA team title in 2017–and she currently ranks number one in the world in her discipline.
Looking for a chink somewhere on that resume?
Kiefer had fencing in her blood when she set out from her Versailles, Kentucky, home–foil in hand.
Her father Steven (now a neurosurgeon) captained the fencing squad at Duke in 1985 and was a two-time NCAA qualifier in foil (he started as a walk-on). Her older sister Alex fenced at Harvard, was a four-time foil All-American (2011-14)–and, like her sister would do two years later, won an NCAA individual crown as a freshman. Lee’s younger brother Axel was a sophomore at Notre Dame in 2016-17–claiming a gold medal in foil at the 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, snaring the runner-up honor in 2017 and twice earning All-America honors.
In 2013, the year Lee won the first of her four NCAA titles, she finished 32-6 during the regular season and then won all but one of her 25 NCAA Championship bouts.
The one loss? It came at the hands of her older sister Alex.
The stack of fencing accomplishments amassed by Kiefer is gargantuan:
–A record four NCAA individual foil titles
–First-team All-America honors in those same four years (2013-14-15-17)
–An NCAA team title with her Notre Dame teammates in 2017
–Two Summer Olympic Games appearances in 2012 and 2016
–The current number-one world ranking in foil, coming off her Grand Prix victory in March in Long Beach, California
–ACC women’s foil champion and ACC foilist of the year in 2015
–Member of ACC champion teams in 2015 and 2017
–First-team all-Midwest Fencing Conference in 2013 and 2014
–Junior World Championships silver medalist in 2011
–Cadet World Championships silver medalist in 2011
–Seven-time Pan American Championships gold medalist (2009-16)
–FIE Grand Prix champion in Turin, Italy, in 2016
–Member of five Cadet World Championship teams, seven Junior World Championship teams and eight Senior World Championship teams
Off the strip, Kiefer has been a first-team CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-American (she’s a pre-med major with a 3.647 grade-point average) in 2015 and that same year was the ACC Women’s Fencing Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Last month she traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, to receive an ACC Postgraduate Scholarship. Kiefer was one of four winners of the 2017 Kanaley Award, given to the senior Notre Dame athletes who are most exemplary as students and leaders. A current nominee for an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, she plans to begin medical school this fall at the University of Kentucky.
Somehow not convinced?
Kiefer also has been a regular nursing home volunteer during her Notre Dame years. She has participated in a Juvenile Diabetes Walk, Notre Dame’s annual Pediatric Christmas Party and been part of the Fighting Irish Fight for Life initiative. She was part of a Center for Social Concerns seminar on understanding mental illness.
Says Notre Dane assistant athletics director Maureen McNamara, who serves as the sport administrator for fencing:
“Lee Kiefer is a difference maker. This cannot be overstated.”
Kiefer Joins Elite NCAA List
Lee Kiefer, the University of Notre Dame’s four-time individual NCAA foil champion (2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017), is one of a group of only 18 Division I student-athletes (one did it twice) who have won four individual NCAA titles:
|1970-71-72-73||Steve Prefontaine||Oregon||Three-Mile Run||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1976-77-78-79||Scott Neilson||Washington||Hammer Throw||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1979-80-81-82||Suleiman Nyambui||UTEP||Mile Run||Indoor Track and Field|
|1979-80-81-82||Suleiman Nyambui||UTEP||10,000-Meter Run||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1980-81-83-84||Michael Carter||SMU||Shot Put||Indoor Track and Field|
|1986-87-88-89||Chad Fox||New Mexico||Vault||Gymnastics|
|1987-88-89-90||Suzy Favor||Wisconsin||1,500-Meter Run||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1988-89-90-91||Mark Sohn||Penn State||Pommel Horse||Gymnastics|
|1990-91-92-94||Pat Smith||Oklahoma State||Wrestling||All at 158 pounds|
|1993-94-95-96||Olga Kalinovskaya||Penn State||Foil||Fencing|
|1993-94-95-96||Balazs Kiss||USC||Hammer Throw||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1997-98-99-00||Seilala Sua||UCLA||Discus Throw||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1999-00-01-02||Angela Williams||USC||100-Meter Dash||Outdoor Track and Field|
|1999-00-01-02||Cael Sanderson||Iowa State||Wrestling||1999-00-01 at 184 pounds, 2002 at 197 pounds|
|2004-06-07-08||Jacquelyn Johnson||Arizona State||Heptatholon||Outdoor Track and Field|
|2010-11-12-13||Kyle Dake||Cornell||Wrestling||2010 at 141 pounds, 2011 at 149, 2012 at 157, 2013 at 165|
|2012-13-14-15||Logan Stieber||Ohio State||Wrestling||2012-13 at 133 pounds, 2014-15 at 141 pounds|
|2013-14-15-17||Lee Kiefer||Notre Dame||Foil||Fencing|
Of the 19 four-time performances, six came in men’s track and field (four outdoor, two indoor), four in women’s track and field (all outdoor), four in wrestling, three in fencing (two women’s, one men’s) and two in gymnastics (both men’s).
The four-time accomplishment has been done a combined 32 times at the NCAA Division II and III levels.
“When she trained and competed in the Olympics (and missed the 2016 season at Notre Dame) there was a definite gap the team experienced in terms of leadership in practice, in team competitions and off the strip. I actually made the comment to our head coach at the end of the season that while Lee is only one person it felt like we lost three people. She has that kind of impact on her teammates. The chemistry, leadership and results were tremendously affected by her absence.
“We have great leaders in our program, but there are some people you just don’t replace. That is Lee Kiefer. She is without a doubt the most impressive fencing student-athlete we have seen in this program.
“Perhaps the most impressive quality Lee possesses is her unassuming demeanor and quiet confidence. Her teammates mean everything to her. She participates in community service opportunities and has a kind and generous heart. She embodies everything Notre Dame represents.”
Ariel Simmons was a freshman on the 2017 Irish team that won the NCAA title. He made a major contribution in his own right, advancing to the men’s epee semifinals. Yet, when looking back at the championship events in Indianapolis, he couldn’t stop talking about Kiefer:
“It was so amazing that Lee won the clinching bout, the one that mattered most. She has won every single thing imaginable. She’s the first U.S. women’s foilist to be number one in the world. She’s going to med school, and so you see her and she’s always studying on the bus, on the plane. And yet she gives her heart for her team.
“Elyssa Kleiner (Irish sophomore foilist) was going to the world championships the following week. And, yet, before Lee’s match in the final four she’s trying to get people to come to practice that next week so they could help train Elyssa.
“She was so invested in the team that she was thinking about someone who did not even fence in the (NCAA) competition. But she cares about everyone else’s success. At the same time she wins every competition possible. I want to see the next person that can do what Lee Kiefer did (four individual NCAA titles). She deserved to close it for us. And everyone felt that way. Everyone stormed the strip, picked her up and threw her in the air. It was amazing to get a chance to fence on this team with her.
“The reason it was beautiful that she got to clinch it is that Lee has been here–the second she got here she started transforming things on the team. She won everything imaginable and then she’s giving her heart to our team.
“In Elyssa’s case, Lee cared from the bottom of her heart about someone else’s success and the preparation. She put aside her own focus. She does that all the time and yet she has won every single competition possible.”
The Notre Dame staff member who has known Kiefer the longest is Buckie Leach, the longtime foil coach for the U.S. team and now an Irish assistant coach.
“I’ve been working with her or been associated with her, even coaching against her, since she was maybe 10 years old. I was most involved with her when I became the national team coach about three years before Rio,” says Leach.
Leach would see Kiefer at World Cup events and traveled a great deal with her and her club coach, Amgad Khazbak. The corps of elite U.S. fencers and coaches all know each other one way or another. And Leach loved the way Kiefer embraced the team aspect of what essentially is an individual sport.
“She was more excited to win the team event this year,” he says. “She’s really driven. Once she gets something in her head it doesn’t come out of her head very easily. If she decides she’s going to do something, she pretty much does it.
“What I’ve seen is her growth as an athlete on a team. Before she got to Notre Dame she had been focused mostly on individual competition. The past two years she’s really become excited about being on a team. Her time with Notre Dame, becoming a captain, being exposed to this environment–all that has made her really very team-oriented which has been great.
“It’s made her have a different outlook — the team is as important as she is. We’ve seen that here–she’s a good captain, a tough captain because she holds everybody to the standards she has and not everybody has those same goals. So she’s able to adjust a little and understand.”
Given the world travel schedule she embraces and somehow manages to fit within her Notre Dame academic assignments, it might have seemed logical that Kiefer would have allowed herself a day off (or maybe even two?) after she and her teammates won the NCAA crown.
“On Monday (the very next day) she came in and was practicing, and she’s number one in the world,” says Leach. “In how many other sports does the person who is number one in the world have all this interaction with everybody else? One day she achieves becoming number one in the world, and the next day she is back in South Bend and goes to class like everybody else.”
As dominant as Kiefer is in American events, the world level provides greater competition–“a little adversity,” as Leach terms it.
“She’ll lose a bout here or there,” he says. “It’s a little bit like when Steffi Graf was number one (in women’s professional tennis) and dropped to number two, and the thought in some circles was that she was done.
“Lee handles that pretty well.”
The thought of Kiefer dealing with the challenges of both medical school and the rigors of training for the 2020 Summer Olympics outwardly appears daunting. Leach is convinced Kiefer will do just fine.
“It would be difficult if she was trying to become number one and doing medical school at the same time. But she’s already at the top–she just needs to maintain. She does not need to train that much. She’s so driven that she thinks she still needs to train, but she could cut back and still be successful.
“I think she’ll continue on. I think she sees individually or as a team we have a good chance for a medal.”
Leach has been around Kiefer a great deal, traveling to world championships and other major fencing events. He never worries about Notre Dame’s superstar becoming too impressed with her own accomplishments.
“All those things you win pale to the people you know and the people you’ve met,” Leach says.
“Twenty years from now she’ll remember the relationships, not the medals.”
And assume that a long list of Notre Dame administrators, coaches and teammates will long remember Kiefer.
The best there ever was in a Notre Dame uniform?
She just might be.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.