London calling for Lee Kiefer

Olympic-bound fencer developed taste for the sport in her family's dining room

Updated: May 1, 2012, 8:22 AM ET
By Walter Villa | ESPNHS.com

When the three Kiefer kids were little, their dining room in Lexington, Ky., was converted into a mini fencing club.

Their father, Steve, who had been the fencing captain at Duke University in the mid-1980s, taught his daughters, Alex and Lee, and son, Axel, the sport's fundamentals.

"In the beginning, I hated fencing," said Lee Kiefer, who was just 5 at the time. "It was so hard, and the equipment was so heavy. I couldn't carry my fencing bag for the first year I fenced."

Kiefer, now 17 and a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar (Lexington, Ky.), is glad she stuck with it. She is one of the sport's rising stars and has qualified for the American foil team in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, her biggest feat yet.

Ranked seventh in the world in foil, she has won 14 gold medals at various events, including the top spot at the 2010 Cadet World Championships. She was also a member of the U.S. team that won gold at the 2009 Junior World Championships.

Last year, she was the only fencer to win individual medals at the Senior, Youth (under 20) and Cadet (under 17) world championships. She took bronze at the Senior event, becoming just the second American female to win an individual foil medal at the event and the first since Iris Zimmerman in 1999. She took silver in the other two.

Kiefer beat Martyna Synoradzka 15-12 in the quarterfinals of the Senior event, but then lost 15-10 to Italy's Valentina Vezzali, who has won five Olympic gold medals. While Vezzali is 38, married and has a son, Kiefer is still just a kid, albeit very talented.

"Lee is amazing," said her sister Alex, 19. "She's one of the best fencers I've ever seen. I think what makes her so good is that she is able to block everything out. She doesn't freak out under pressure. It's really hard to get consistent results in fencing, but she is able to do it because she's so mentally tough."

Alex pointed to what she sees as her own inconsistency to prove her point. In her freshman year at Harvard, Alex won an NCAA national title in foil. As a sophomore this March, she came in 11th, which was good enough for honorable mention All-America honors but below her expectations.

Teresa Kiefer, who is the kids' mother and Steve's wife, said Lee is ultracompetitive in everything.

Lee Kiefer
Courtesy of Teresa KieferLee Kiefer (right) and her sister Alex (left) and brother Axel were introduced to fencing by their father, a former fencing captain at Duke.

With Alex being such a brilliant student -- she got a perfect score on her ACT in 2009 and is a premed major -- Lee has been inspired to work that much harder academically.

But just getting through her senior year hasn't been easy.

Because of Lee's international fencing schedule -- she spent the last week of March in Moscow, for example -- she has missed the equivalent of two months of class.

"When my friends see me in class, they say: 'We forgot you went to school here,' " Kiefer said.

Kiefer took a heavy academic load as a junior, which allows her to travel more this year. She also has managed to save spots on her schedule for graduation day and her senior prom before flying to England for the Olympics.

She hopes things will slow down next year, when she will be on a fencing scholarship at Notre Dame. She chose the Fighting Irish over Duke and Harvard and joked that her father and sister didn't do a good enough job recruiting her.

While at Notre Dame, Kiefer plans to follow the family tradition and become a doctor. Steve is a neurosurgeon, Teresa is a psychiatrist, and even Axel, 15, plans to go to med school. (Axel is also an accomplished fencer and won his first Cadet European Cup earlier this season.)

Teresa, who comes from a long line of doctors, is the only one of the five Kiefers who does not have a background in competitive fencing. But she has been there every step of the way as her husband prepared the kids for fencing success.

"I'm trying to savor these moments," she said. "When Steve first started working with the kids, I didn't know it was going to consume everything we do. I didn't know how big it was going to get. In the beginning, it was like watching bad violinists. It was painful to watch."

It wasn't much fun for the kids, either.

Steve insisted they learn the proper footwork and spent hours in the dining room trying to get them to perfect the movements.

Lee said she was too "scared" to quit, and Alex echoed her sentiments.

"My dad is a perfectionist," Alex said. "We worked on our technique until we got it right or we started crying, whichever came first.

"We wanted to play on the computer or read. But Dad wouldn't let us quit. He said we had talent."

Steve said the fencing lessons were about more than the sport.

"Digging in and working hard at a pursuit to produce something of value was one of those early lessons," Steve Kiefer said via email from a competition in Russia last month. "Fencing was a vehicle to teach the benefits of focus and hard work.

"Indeed this was a source of tears for young children. On more than one occasion, my wife served as arbitrator."

Steve said all three of his children are bright and athletic. But he feels Lee is "wired" to fence and is so agile that she is "ballerina-like on the strip."

He added that Lee is one of the most mentally tough people he knows.

"She has an intense and almost visceral dislike for losing," Steve said.

Alex can attest to that. When she was growing up, the family kept pencils and paper in the dining/fencing room so the kids could keep score.

When Lee lost, she would break the pencils over her knee.

"I think Lee gets her determination from our dad," Alex said. "I think it's a big part of her fencing, her desire to win and also having that technique down since the very beginning."

Lee said she is no longer satisfied with just making the Olympics. She wants to medal.

She figures her best shot at that will be in 2016, when she will have more experience.

"Of course, I want to get a medal this year, and I know I can put up a fight," she said. "But I don't want to set myself up to be disappointed. [By 2016], I hope to be at my best. I know I haven't reached that point yet."