FencingNewsLee KieferGerek Meinhardt

For Fencers Lee Kiefer, Gerek Meinhardt, The Pan Am Games Are An Opportunity To Win More Gold, Smell The Roses

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Lee Kiefer celebrates after winning the women's individual foil semifinals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 25, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Olympic fencing medalists Lee Kiefer and Gerek Meinhardt have followed this script before. It’s coming to that time in the Olympic cycle when practices feel more thoughtful, competitions take on extra importance and everything is focused on the biggest competition looming at the end.

For Kiefer and Meinhardt, who are married, the shared journey of trying to get to another Olympics together is underway.

With the Olympic Games Paris 2024 now less than a year away, the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 — set for Oct. 20-Nov. 5 in Santiago, Chile — take on particular importance. It’s the kick-off competition for their global schedule in 2023-24, and the pair want to do their best as part of Team USA. It also helps that the Pan Am Games fencing competition does not count for Paris qualification, lessening a bit of pressure.

“It’s always fun to be at the Pan Ams, because it gives you a feel of the Olympics: the teams from other countries, living in the village, having meals in the dining hall,” said Kiefer, who is ranked as the top female foil fencer in the world. “That’s something you don’t get at other competitions, and I really enjoy that.”

Meinhardt, No. 2 in men’s foil, added, “We were looking through the photo album for the last time we went to Santiago (in 2015 for the Pan American Championships), and we realized we didn’t have too many photos of us there. We’re going to change that this time around. We want to take in some of the sights, take more photos, eat some good local food and, of course, compete as well as we can as a team and individually.”

Both have made multiple trips to the Pan Am Games, and they have the medals to show. Kiefer is the three-time defending champion in women’s foil and has a pair of team gold medals, too. Meinhardt missed the 2019 event but owns two team gold medals and an individual silver from 2015.

They know what to expect and are excited to be challenged by the field. Their mindset is to do their best, try to enjoy the experience and understand the result — good or otherwise — does not define the road to come.

“Pan Ams will be helpful in getting us the experience to get us ready for the road to Paris,” Kiefer, 29, said. “It’s having a game plan, a mindset, and achieving the focus we want to cultivate.”

Both openly admit they have big goals for themselves this season. Kiefer is the defending Olympic champion in foil, with her win at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 making her the first American — male or female — to win gold in that event. Meinhardt, a four-time Olympian, has two team bronzes (2020 and 2016). He hopes Team USA can reach even higher in Paris.

Gerek Meinhardt celebrates a point during his men's foil team quarterfinals bout at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Kiefer knows the expectations on her will start to build as Paris draws closer.

“I definitely fluctuate on it,” she said, about if she thinks about defending her gold. “What I am choosing to take from the last medal is the good, as what I am getting to do is something we love so much. I love this sport and I do want to win.

“But if I don’t win again, does that mean what I did has less value in terms of my effort? It’s totally absurd to go down those negative rabbit holes. I try to keep things positive. … I’m human, so things are a moving target.”

Kiefer and Meinhardt have been fencing for a long time and have the needed understanding of what their preparations need to be like. Kiefer admits she is a perfectionist, logging more time in practice than Meinhardt. He’s not slacking off though, trying to mindful about the wear and tear on his 33-year-old body.

They’re looking for balance: finding the joy in competing and happiness in achievement, while working through disappointment in substantive ways. The couple’s shared passion helps them support each other.

“She pushes me in ways to help me out of my comfort zone, her intensity inspires me,” Meinhardt said. “And I try to help her find the balance of not overdoing things. It’s about reaching your potential, and I think we bring a lot to each other in different ways.”

The COVID-19 pandemic had a ripple effect on their Olympic training cycles. The Tokyo Games happened five years after the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and now Paris is scheduled for only three years later. They said it feels like jumping from training too long for Tokyo, to the interval for Paris running too short.

It also meant another change in their lives: postponing medical school. They were studying at the University of Kentucky’s medical school before Tokyo, getting in two years before they decided to stop. It was too much to train at the highest level, travel around the world to compete and handle the intensity of medical training. They decided to move medicine to the future and make fencing their now.

So after Paris, in the summer of 2025, Meinhardt and Kiefer will restart medical school, as third years.

Until then, the agenda is fencing, fully embracing all experiences, seeing the sights, eating the good food and enjoying their unique lives.

“I just want to be brave while fencing,” Kiefer said, about her strengthening her mental approach over the coming year. “I want to feel joyful and confident in my fencing. Each tournament is an opportunity to do that. That’s my hope right now.

“Seeing joy is a choice; sure, there are also other descriptors for what I do, like resilient or tough, but I want to practice and execute being more positive. I think that will be wonderful.”