GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Foil fencer Lee Kiefer lives in Kentucky, is half Filipino, her coach is Egyptian, she just won a bronze medal at the world championships in Italy, and on Monday in Mexico, Kiefer made her Pan American Games debut.
The world is in her hands. Yet the 17-year-old feels no pressure in Guadalajara.
“Since the world championships were the main event of the year, Pan Ams are more relaxing,” she said. “I’ll have fun with it and see how it goes. I hope to win, and I have a good chance to.”
At the Pan Ams, Kiefer won’t have to face the Valentina Vezzali of Italy, the five-time Olympic gold medalist who stopped her in the semifinals at worlds, 15-10. Earlier this year, Kiefer said Vezzali “destroyed” her, 15-4, so Kiefer’s world championship performance against the 37-year-old Vezzali was all the more remarkable. As well as historic. The US hadn’t had a senior world championship medalist in women’s individual foil since 1999.
But all this has been just a pit stop on Kiefer’s way back to high school.
After worlds, Kiefer flew home to Kentucky and spent two days in class before jetting off to Mexico.
“Everyone was congratulating me. I think they knew it was a big deal,” she said. “For me, I was SO surprised. I never expected to get a medal at a senior event for the next few years.”
Kiefer had already been the 2010 cadet world champion (under-17), and a 2009 world champion in the junior team event (under-20). As a senior, her best major international finish had been 12th in Gdansk, Poland in February.
“She might have surprised a lot of people,” said her coach Amgad Khazbak, referring to her bronze medal at worlds, “but I expected this for long, long years.”
Kiefer is almost certain to become Khazbak’s first Olympian. If the US earns the right to send three female foil fencers to the London Games, the top three athletes in the national rankings on April 16 will earn a slot. Right now, Kiefer leads the way by a large margin.
Surprisingly, Kiefer never really watched the Olympics until 2008 (over the internet, no less), but she hails from a family of foil fencers. Her father, Steve, fenced at Duke; her older sister, Alexandra, won the 2011 NCAA title at Harvard; and her younger brother, Axel, currently trains under Khazbak at the Bluegrass Fencers’ Club in Lexington.
Foil fencing was one of the original Olympic disciplines contested at the first modern Games in 1896; the women’s event was added in 1924. Unlike epee and sabre athletes, foil fencers may only score on their opponent’s torso (excluding the arms and head).
Kiefer never dabbled in the other weapons, but she admits to crying as a youth when she was unable to grasp the right-of-way concept. She could have converted to epée where right-of-way isn’t a factor but “I just didn’t want to [switch],” she said. “Everyone I looked up to, including my dad, were foil fencers.”
And now that the Kiefer name has been inscribed in fencing history, she plans to extend the legacy next year at Notre Dame.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.
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