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Fencing runs in the Kiefer family

Siblings Axel (far left), 14, Lee, 16, and Alex, 18, Kiefer have competed in fencing competitions around the globe. Photo by Hannah Potes | StaffAxel, Alex and Lee Kiefer at Bluegrass Fencing Club in Lexington, Ky on Thursday June 9, 2011. Photo by Hannah Potes | Staff
Siblings Axel (far left), 14, Lee, 16, and Alex, 18, Kiefer have competed in fencing competitions around the globe. Photo by Hannah Potes | StaffAxel, Alex and Lee Kiefer at Bluegrass Fencing Club in Lexington, Ky on Thursday June 9, 2011. Photo by Hannah Potes | Staff

Tucked in the corner of a Lexington strip mall, between a pizza place and a karate dojo, the Bluegrass Fencers' Club is more spartan than special.

What is special, though, is the talent inside.

Specifically, siblings Alex, Lee and Axel Kiefer.

All use the foil, one of fencing's three weapons.

Alex (short for Alexandra), who recently completed her freshman year at Harvard, is reigning NCAA champion.

Lee, entering her senior year at Paul Laurence Dunbar High, is a leading candidate for next year's U.S. Olympic team.

Axel, an incoming freshman at Dunbar, has his eye on the Olympics of 2016 or beyond.

"It's great to have this family," said Amgad Khazbak, a former international competitor and coach in his native Egypt who now serves as Bluegrass maestro.

Foiled again

In foil, the Kiefers are following the course taken by their father, Steven.

A neurosurgeon, he is an Erlanger native and a graduate of Dixie Heights High School. He captained the team at Duke, where he graduated in 1985.

Dad saw fencing as a natural sport for his children.

"It's a sport that one can be good at despite one's physical size, and my wife (Teresa) is Filipino. So if you average us out, I don't think we're going to have too many NBA players out of my family size-wise," he said. "It's something that people can be competitive at despite height or physical strength."

Alex, who turned 19 Saturday, stands 5-foot-3, 100 pounds. Lee, who turned 17 earlier this month, is 5-4, 105. Axel, 14, is 5-5, 115.

Alex was 9, Lee 7, when together they first tried the sport. Axel followed at 7.

A foil has a blunt point at the end of a flexible, rectangular blade. A touch — how points are scored — is made with the point on the torso, between collar and hipbones.

Fencing's other weapons are the épée and sabre.

The épée has a rigid triangular blade, and touches may be made on any body part.

The sabre is a flexible triangular blade. Both the blunt point and cutting edges can be used to score anywhere above the waist.

Khazbak dismisses the notion of having the Kiefers try épée or sabre.

"High level, it is not good to be in more than one weapon," he said. "Medium level, OK, you can. But high level, never. ... It's different tactic. Some technique is different, too. And the personality is totally different."

Khazbak, who has a shot to be the U.S. Olympic coach, has been mentoring the Kiefers since arriving in Lexington seven years ago. Alex and Lee first studied in Louisville under Les Stawicki, former Polish national coach.

Steven Kiefer recalls talking with Frank Thomiszer, a fencing enthusiast who had moved from Atlanta, about the need to have a coach in Lexington. Thomiszer's coach in Atlanta, also an Egyptian, recommended Khazbak, who at the time was coaching in Houston.

The Kiefer siblings say that it took time for the sport to grow on them.

"It was a lot of traveling because we went to Louisville, and it was kind of a bummer to wake up Saturday morning and go fence," Alex said. "Then there was a time period when we all really wanted to quit because we were just tired of it. But our parents made us keep fencing, and it turned out OK."

Plus, Lee said, "no one who starts fencing is automatically good at fencing, and it takes, I would say, at least two or three years when you're little to become decent. So after we became good, we started to like it. But for a while, no way!"

Steven Kiefer says that success "to the point where they are now has floored me."

It came with a lot of work, though, from Stawicki to Khazbak, and with a lot of dad in between.

"We worked at home a lot," Steven said of the Louisville training years. "I was sort of the ... fencing Nazi. I was the footwork enforcer. I was the guy that worked on the not-fun stuff at home. Footwork is the most important part of the game, but it's not the most fun part of the game."

World traveler

Lee, ranked No. 1 in the Senior World Team rankings, recalls a gradual realization rather than a defining moment that she became a "good" fencer.

"There's always a struggle when you're little," she said. "You lose more than you win, and then when you start winning more you're like, 'Oh, this is awesome.' "

The winning progressed from regional to national and, finally, international levels.

In the last three months alone, in addition to national competitions, Lee has competed in Jordan, China, South Korea and Russia.

Including team competition at Amman, Jordan, she won three silver medals in the Cadet (16-under) and Junior (19-under) World Championships, "which is good and bad. ... I mean, it's great getting a medal. But it's sad if you get silver-place in every single event."

Although London serves as motivation, Lee doesn't talk much about the Olympics. Team USA is in line to qualify three individual women, plus a fourth for team competition.

"It stresses me out when other people talk about it, but I do think about it on occasion," she said. "Like 'what do I have to do, where am I at this point?' "

A lady and a scholar

Alex, though, says she's past the stress now that she has an NCAA title in her pocket. Ranked No. 9 in the national senior rankings, she says her focus is on building the team rather than more individual honors.

A Dunbar graduate, she is studying in pre-med, considering a major in human evolutionary biology.

But she chose Harvard primarily because of fencing.

"They're like a really close team," she said, "and the coach (Peter Brand) is awesome."

An NCAA title surpassed her own expectations, even though her résumé includes a second-place finish in a French World Cup competition.

"At the beginning of the year, I didn't know how I would do, just because the college scene is different than the national scene," she said. "After the first tournament of the year, when I won at the Penn State Open, then I was starting to get excited about it, and I was practicing harder with the team, I think. Then, for NCAAs, I think my goal was to get top three maybe, so I was real excited when I won."

Great expectations

Considering what his sisters have done and how it affects him, Axel said: "A lot of expectations."

He says he feels the pressure "a lot, actually."

Not that he backs away.

"Hopefully, I'll go to the Olympics and go to a good school like Alex, maybe get a scholarship," said Axel, a recent graduate of The Lexington School. "I don't know — it's still a long ways from college, but I guess my goal is to go to the Olympics."

Already he has competed in France and Hungary, and was ranked No. 1 in the country as a 12-and-under. Khazbak says Axel has a shot to be in next year's 17-under World Championships at Moscow.

Making the grade

On her way to Harvard, Alex scored a perfect ACT.

Lee posted straight A's this year, "but it's definitely been a struggle. Hardest year yet. Next year will be better."

Axel doesn't shy from academic challenges, either.

"At (The Lexington) School, the teachers helped a lot because they cut me a lot of slack, and it wouldn't matter that I missed school as long as I got the work done," he said. "It will be a lot different now that I go to Dunbar, which is a public school, but I think I can manage it. Lee managed, so hopefully I'll be OK."

Although most fellow students find fencing as foreign as the Kiefer travel log, the siblings get plenty of support. Even if that support sometimes seems annoying.

"The worst question (from a student) is, like, 'did you win?' Because there are lots of different levels, and it's complicated to me," Lee said. "Even if you did really well, like the best you've ever done, they'll be disappointed if you don't say 'yes.'

"And then, 'did you kill people?' You're just like 'sure, of course I did.' "

Touché.

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