Lee KieferFencingNews

How Much Better Can Lee Kiefer Get At Fencing? That Question Is What’s Driving Her Ahead Of Paris

by Luke Hanlon

Lee Kiefer poses for a portrait at the 2024 Team USA Media Summit on April 16, 2024 in New York. (Photo by Getty Images)

When Lee Kiefer first began fencing as a kid, it wasn’t her decision.

Her father, Steven, had captained the fencing team at Duke University in the 1980s and signed Lee up for the sport.

After a year or two, Kiefer learned to love fencing, and it became a passion for her too. Now looking back on the start of her athletic journey, she realizes her parents were trying to show her the importance of establishing work ethic.

“I think my parents are the kind of people where you have to work hard in order to become good at something,” Kiefer said. “For them if I was just like, ‘I don’t like this on day two,’ they’re going to be like, ‘Well, you didn’t really give it a chance and you never really put any work in.’”

Kiefer, 29, has been putting that work in for more than two decades since, and it’s more than paid off.

After making her world championships debut as a 15-year-old in 2009, Kiefer took home her first individual foil worlds medal two years later when she won bronze in Catania, Italy. In the years since, the Lexington, Kentucky, native has experienced a lot of firsts when it comes to U.S. fencing.

In 2017, Kiefer became the first U.S. woman to earn the world No. 1 ranking in foil. Four years later, she lived up to that ranking by winning the first Olympic individual foil gold medal in American history. She’s also won two more individual medals plus four team medals at the world championships.

While preparing for the pandemic-delayed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Kiefer trained on a homemade fencing strip in her parents’ basement with her husband, and fellow Olympic fencer, Gerek Meinhardt.

Kiefer described Meinhardt as her “secret weapon” since he can train with Kiefer while also helping her get through bad personal days. The couple is now set to experience their fourth Olympics together, as they’ve both qualified for the Olympic Games Paris 2024.

Lee Kiefer defeats Jessica Zi Jia Guo (Team Canada) in the women's individual foil competition at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 30, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

Kiefer’s training routine has shifted since she won gold in Tokyo.

“Basement workouts were not sustainable for the rest of my life,” she said. “A lot has evolved since then.”

Kiefer said she and Meinhardt, who met while fencing for Notre Dame, still train together a lot and don’t have a work-life balance, as fencing still rules their household. However, they’ve each tried to branch out to participate in international training camps to see different fencing styles.

Paris will be the first time Kiefer will have to compete with the added pressure of being a defending gold medalist. While that is something she’s never done at the Olympic level, she has a plethora of experience defending gold medals at the Pan American Games.

In 2011, Kiefer won gold in individual foil in her Pan Ams debut. She’s gone on to defend that title three times, with the most recent triumph coming in Santiago, Chile, this past October.

Pushing for a gold medal in Paris is not necessarily what’s driving Kiefer to continue fencing. After finishing in 10th in individual foil at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Kiefer considered retiring from the sport to pursue medical school full time. While she still ending up enrolling in medical school at the University of Kentucky, she decided to stick with fencing as well.

Kiefer has been on a leave of absence from medical school since Tokyo to fully dive into the Paris Olympic quad. She said one of the main reasons she’s still fencing — and delaying her medical degree — was to see how much better she could get.

“You have an Olympic medal and you’re ranked No. 1 in the world, but the nuances are so fun,” she said. “For most of my career I was a really strong attacker, and I built my game around that. Compared to the last Olympics, I feel like I’m so much more versatile and still always thinking about how can I grow my game? What are my holes? What’s that person doing that I can borrow their idea and add to my game? It’s so fun strategically, creatively.”

While preparing for Tokyo, Kiefer said her goal was to “go out there and do my best fencing.” No amount of pressure or expectation is going to change Kiefer’s approach leading up to Paris.

“There’s so many things you can’t control, and there are things you can control like your preparation leading up to it — physical and mental,” she said. “So honestly, I’m focusing on preparation and then I’m going to go out there and try to fence well.”