Southern Olympians to Watch: Fighting With Family Paid off for This Kentucky Fencer
Most parents would avoid family activities that involved swords. But not the Kiefers. For them, fighting with weapons was a family affair.
When you think of Kentucky, visions of world class bourbon and high stakes horse racing may come to mind. But the Southern state has another home-grown claim to fame you may not have heard of. Her name is Lee Kiefer and she's a two-time Olympic fencer from the city of Lexington.
Lee and her siblings were introduced to the sport by their dad, Steve Kiefer. He captained the fencing team at Duke University in the 1980s. "When I was around seven, he decided to pick his sword back up again," Kiefer told Southern Living. "We watched him do this strange sport that we had never seen before. And he started teaching us some footwork in our dining room."
Soon, all three Kiefer kids were signed up for fencing lessons. By age eight, Lee, the middle child, was proving to be a fierce competitor. "I definitely had a temper as a little girl and I hated to lose," she admitted. "So, my early success was based off my hate for losing, which made me a feisty little creature and a handful for my parents!"
As Lee and her siblings' fencing skills progressed, their parents convinced the renowned, Egyptian-born fencing coach, Amgad Khazbak, to relocate in Lexington and help the young family of fencers. "His style and my personality really clicked together from a young age," explained Lee. "I'm a pretty aggressive fencer and he's someone who really values speed and strength. I feel like that was a huge edge I had on people when I was younger, just being able to run circles around them."
Coach Khazbak trained the Kiefers in foil fencing. This type of fencing uses a lightweight, metal sword with a flexible blade. Points are scored when competitors make contact with their opponents using the tip of the foil. Lee's older sister, Alexandra, went on to become a National Champion foil fencer at Harvard while her younger brother, Axel, took home multiple world championships in the men's foil division. Lee competed in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games and in 2017, at the age of 22, she became the first U.S. female foil fencer to earn a No. 1 world ranking.
Although her siblings have since moved away from the sport, Lee stuck with it. "There is always room to learn and grow so I think that's why I'm still doing it," she said. "It's always challenging and interesting, whether that's your mental game, studying video on people, or even just physically. It always evolves, and I think that's a very special part."
Lee expanded her family of fencers when she married fellow world champion foil fencer and long-time teammate, Gerek Meinhardt in 2019. In addition to sharing a love of the same sport, she and her husband are both in medical school at the University of Kentucky. But when hospital rotations started to compete with her training, Lee decided to take a year off from school so she could prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Just days before her final qualification, she got word that everything was shutting down due to the growing global pandemic.
With gyms and fencing clubs closed, Lee and her husband built their own fencing strip in her parent's basement to continue their training. "We are very co-dependent especially when it comes to fencing, because we need each other's skills to train and get better," she said. "We both know each other's areas that we want to improve on, so there was a lot of coaching and motivation to push through the tough days."
In hindsight, Lee said being on lockdown gave her time to relax, recover and more importantly, reflect. "In some ways it ended up being a little bit rejuvenating because I have been go, go, go, for almost 20 years of fencing. And it was kind of my first real break," she said. "I feel at this point very grateful to have had that time to reflect on my journey in life and still be here and competing and doing what I love."