Four-time national champion Lee Kiefer leaves lasting legacy
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, May 19, 2017
For Lee Kiefer, fencing has always been about family.
The daughter of Steven Kiefer, who fenced collegiately at Duke, Lee was exposed to the sport at a young age, along with her older sister Alexandra — who fenced at Harvard — and brother Axel — a current Notre Dame sophomore and foilist who was named a second-team All-American this past season. But over time, she began to forge her own path, resulting in her committing to Notre Dame. Once again, it was family that drew her in.
“Fencing is a sport where you have to dedicate a lot of your time to it if you want to do well,” Kiefer said. “ … I looked at just a few schools when I was applying — ones that had really strong fencing programs but also were strong academically — and during my visit to Notre Dame, their fencing team was really close and everyone had such a strong community, and my visit definitely was an accurate representation of what the team ended up being.”
But before her time at Notre Dame, Kiefer was already an elite fencer. In 2009, at 15 years old, she became the youngest member of the Senior World Team and won a bronze medal at the 2011 championships, becoming just the second American woman to ever accomplish that feat. She also participated in the 2012 London Olympics, in which she placed fifth individually.
Kiefer took the collegiate world by storm her freshman year, winning the 2013 foil championship with a 32-6 overall record and being named a first team All-American. At the NCAA Midwest regional, she came in first with an 18-1 record, only losing to Ohio State’s Mona Shaito, a fellow All-American, and moved on to the championship tournament in San Antonio, where she only lost once — to her sister Alex, no less. Kiefer avenged her previous defeat to Shaito in the semifinals and then won the NCAA title in convincing fashion over Jackie Dubrovich of Columbia.
She had achieved immense success on the strip in just one season. But off of it, Kiefer struggled to find a balance between school, friends and fencing.
“I used to get sad that I didn’t have an opportunity to have friends outside of fencing,” Kiefer said. “It’s similar to when you’re younger and you are training and traveling, and then you get to college and you have school work and it’s just crazy. I felt like I was missing out on part of the Notre Dame experience, but then I came to learn that it’s ok that your fencing life and your personal life overlap; my teammates are also my friends and my family.”
Kiefer’s talent forced her to blend international competition and collegiate fencing, a relationship that saw her compete in a limited role for the Irish during her sophomore year. But Kiefer still managed to capture her second straight individual title, finishing pool play with a 19-4 record and earning the No. 1 seed at the NCAA championships. She steamrolled her way to the final, where she beat teammate and current volunteer coach Madison Zeiss, 15-11.
“It’s weird because when you’re not in college, you don’t realize that college fencing is actually a big deal, because a lot of athletes who go to fencing schools are also trying to compete on the national and international circuit,” Kiefer said of the relationship between college and the international scene. “It took me my first year to get adjusted to the whole team spirit and the whole environment, and then each year, I wanted to win more and win for my team.”
As a junior, Kiefer was dominant. Facing some of the top fencers not only collegiately but also internationally, she posted a record of 51-6, winning the first ever ACC women’s foil championship while helping the Irish capture the first ever women’s ACC title as well. She cruised through NCAA regionals with a 16-0 record and won her third consecutive NCAA title at the championships, besting Columbia’s Margaret Lu 15-13.
Kiefer took the 2015-2016 season off to prepare for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she finished 10th overall. For Kiefer, representing her country at the highest level for the second time was not only a dream come true, but also a valuable experience.
“Obviously, it was an amazing experience being able to represent my country at London and in Rio, but it was just very different” she said of the comparison between collegiate fencing and the Olympics. “At Notre Dame, you have to be so much more emotionally invested [in the team], and each competition is so intense, and it’s really exhilarating being on the international scene and at the Olympics, but you’re more relying on yourself and your skills.
“ … I definitely have a lot more experience than a lot of people, being in any type of pressure situation, being tired or frustrated — just dealing with a lot of factors I think that are more normal to me and are part of my life [as a competitor]. It helps to stay calm and stay motivated throughout the long season, and then just being able to stay fresh with your skills, always trying to work towards something … I never feel like I’m not ready to compete.”
Coming into her senior season, Kiefer had one more goal to cross off her list: an NCAA team championship. The Irish won in 2011, just before she began her collegiate career, and although she had won back-to-back-to-back individual titles, Notre Dame had yet to capture a team title during Kiefer’s career.
“Just the year before, when we would come to school, we would just spend hours talking about the team, our hopes for it and what we thought people could do, and then we got here and everyone was so excited and the team got really close,” Kiefer said of the goals for the season. “This year, I really wanted a victory for the team, because I’ve won individually before, and obviously that’s amazing and such an honor, but I felt like I had the ability to help my teammates, and help push them towards overall victory.
“ … Being a senior, I was so much more involved with everyone, using that experience to help the freshmen get adjusted or push other people to get more intense during the competition, or sleep more when they needed to take care of their bodies. So honestly that was my goal — to help the team win a championship — and then I knew if I could do that and keep taking care of myself, I had a good chance of winning, too, so I think the goals overlapped a bit and everything just fell into place.”
Kiefer finished first in the preliminaries at NCAAs with a commanding +70 differential before becoming only the third fencer ever to win four individual titles on the collegiate circuit with a 5-1 win over Cornell’s Luby Kiriakidi, which clinched the team title for the Irish as well.
“We just peaked at the perfect time,” Kiefer said of the win. “I don’t think we ever struggled because of a loss of passion or training, there were just a lot of small elements out of place, and we just kept pushing through it, trying to make adjustments, and we were able to win. It was really a hard-fought season overall for everyone.”
Kiefer’s legacy will forever be cemented in both Irish fencing history and the sport itself. This past March, she earned the No. 1 world ranking after winning her second FIE Grand Prix gold medal, the first American woman to ever achieve such a feat.
“It was one of the best feelings in the world,” Kiefer said of the honor. “As a young athlete, everyone first wants a medal at the Olympics, and then I think the second best thing would be reaching that milestone and being able to say, ‘Yes, I am the best fencer in the world.’ But at the same time, that just puts so much more responsibility on myself to keep training hard and being a good example for other people to help them try and reach their goals, too.”
And after graduation, Kiefer has set her eyes on only more greatness: The two-time Olympian has already set her eyes on the 2020 Tokyo games, as well as achieving her career dream of getting through medical school and becoming a doctor.
“I definitely won’t forget all of the people who helped me reach all of these amazing milestones — just the whole process has been so amazing,” Kiefer said of her Notre Dame career. “You don’t come to school and are just a winner, you have to work your way to the top.”
After her career, the only question for Kiefer is where “the top” really is.