Lee Kiefer ranks among the best women’s foil fencers in the world.
The 21-year-old Paul Laurence Dunbar graduate said she didn’t really believe that until recently, even though she finished fifth individually in the 2012 Olympics in London and has been near the top of the world rankings since.
In 2012, Kiefer fell to the eventual silver medal winner in the single-elimination Olympic tournament. This year, she’s taken a year off her pre-med studies at Notre Dame to focus on training for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero this summer.
“I’ve been planning to take this year off for like 10 years … ,” Kiefer said last week as she got ready to begin one of her training sessions at Bluegrass Fencers’ Club, tucked in a back corner of the Keithshire Place shopping center in Lexington. Kiefer has been training and competing for more than half her life. “I thought if I took a year off, I could probably train my hardest and have the best chance of qualifying. I’m also studying for my MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), so I would have time to do that.”
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The year off from school has been good. “I feel like I don’t always have to be doing work,” she said. “And once I finish studying for my MCAT, then it’ll just be all fun.”
That fun will include competing in eight international events in the run-up to Rio to secure one of two American spots in the exclusive 32-competitor Olympic field. Kiefer can compete only as an individual this year. The women’s foil team competition is not part of this Olympic rotation.
“I’m in a good position, right now,” she said. “But I still want to improve my fencing. I’m more focused about my fencing than the qualification or my results. I want to develop my skills. There’s no point in stressing over it.”
I’ve been planning to take this year off for like 10 years. … I thought if I took a year off, I could probably train my hardest and have the best chance of qualifying. I’m also studying for my MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), so I would have time to do that.
Kiefer had always competed well in the western hemisphere. She’s a three-time NCAA champion for Notre Dame and a multiple medal winner at any fencing event you can Google on this side of the planet.
But now, on any given day, she can beat the best in the world. She knows it. She’s done it.
“It depends on the day, but her level is very good (compared) to the other people,” said Amgad Khazbak, head coach of Bluegrass Fencers’ Club. “In my opinion, she’s the best. But she needs to feel it, and then she can do it.”
Most of Kiefer’s training has come under the guidance of Khazbak, a former U.S. and Egyptian national team coach who was coaxed to Lexington more than a decade ago by Kiefer’s family. Khazbak was with Kiefer as the U.S. team coach in London. He will be her personal coach in Rio.
Kiefer’s training includes two to four hours of fencing a day, five days a week in Khazbak’s studio and three cross-fit strength and agility sessions each week. She pairs up with anyone for a practice bout. Sometimes, it’s Khazbak or his son, Hazem, who is also taking a year off from Notre Dame to recover from a knee injury and train for the Egyptian national team. Other times, it could be any of the other young fencers under Khazbak’s tutelage, including Stefani Deschner, 16, who placed fifth in the Women’s Foil Cadet World Championship in Uzbekistan last year and is getting set to move into the junior ranks.
“Sometimes, when I’m here, I’m fencing someone, and I’ve been fencing longer than they’ve been alive, so obviously I have an advantage,” Kiefer said. “In that case, I try to work on specific things that I know I’m weaker at. When I’m fencing really experienced people who are better than me, I’ll try new stuff, but it also teaches you to be more disciplined and take what they’re doing, too.
Last week, she matched up frequently with her brother Axel, a freshman fencer on winter break from Notre Dame. He’s taking pre-med courses as well and has been earning podium spots for the Irish and himself along the way. But he says his sister still has the edge on him.
“She kicks my butt. Mentally she’s just got me beat,” he said. “I’ve been fencing with her since I was 7 years old, you know. She’s got that edge on me. She always will. When it comes to practice, she’s mentally there. She knows how to win bouts. When it comes to the competitive aspect, she can always win bouts.”
That’s what Lee Kiefer will be trying to do this weekend in Poland. The rest of the best will be there, including the world’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Kiefer checks in at No. 4.
The world No. 1 is Inna Deriglazova of Russia. Kiefer lost her last bout with Deriglazova 12-15 in July but defeated her 15-14 eight months earlier at a world cup event in France.
The world No. 2 is Elisa Di Francisca of Italy. She won gold in London. Kiefer lost to her 14-15 in November but defeated her 15-6 a year earlier in the same venue.
The world No. 3 is Arianna Errigo of Italy. She is the Olympic silver medalist who knocked Kiefer out at the 2012 Olympics and has beaten her a few times since. Last February, Errigo was ranked No. 1 in the world at the Algers Foil World Cup event in Algeria. Kiefer beat her 15-14 in the finals to claim her first senior world cup title.
Kiefer began that bout fencing much more aggressively than she had against Errigo.
“That was a good strategy for the time, but I don’t think that’s an every time strategy,” Kiefer said, looking back at the bout that helped solidify her confidence on the world stage. “I think that really surprised her, but I think now she would be expecting it. So, I’m going to have to work on some other plan if I happen to fence her again.”
As a top-16 competitor with a first-day bye at most events, Kiefer can size up her side of the bracket and prepare for each bout as they come.
“I’ve been competing for so long that I don’t think I have any one thing to make me focus,” she said. “Sometimes you’re dealing with jet lag. Sometimes you’re tired from sleep deprivation. Sometimes your body doesn’t feel good. You just can’t predict. So I kind of like to take whatever I’m working with that day and maximize that.”
Right after she returns from Poland next week, she’ll prepare to take the Medical College Admission Test at the end of January. Aside from her Olympic dream, she’s also still set on the path of her parents, Steven and Teresa, and older sister, Alex — all doctors. After the Olympics, Lee Kiefer plans to pick up where she left off in the classroom and athletically at Notre Dame.
“Lee is a very determined, driven, ambitious person who has sight of the big picture,” Notre Dame head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said in an email last week. “Professionally, she wants to go to medical school and, athletically, she wants to make this trip to the Olympics count by giving it her best shot. When you're talking about a special person such as Lee, it’s a pleasure to give 100 percent support for her well-thought-out goals.”
2016 Summer Olympics
When: Aug. 5-21
Where: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Fencing: Aug. 6-14
Types of fencing
Foil: Lightweight blade (90 cm., 500 g.). A point is scored when the tip touches the opponent’s torso or groin.
Epee: Rigid and heavy blade (110 cm., 770 g.). A point is scored when the tip touches any part of the opponent’s body.
Sabre: Shorter and more flexible blade (88 cm., 500 g.). A point is scored when opponent is hit above the belt.