(Havana, Cuba) – They call it the “LeePeat” for a reason.
Lee Kiefer (Lexington, Ky.) has dominated the women’s foil individual event at the Pan American Championships in a way no other fencer has – male or female, regardless of weapon.
From her first Pan American Championships in Costa Rica as a 16 year old in 2010 to now, Kiefer has never lost a direct elimination bout.
Coming into the 2018 Pan Ams in Havana this weekend, Kiefer held eight Pan Am titles in seven countries (the first gold in Costa Rica was followed by another in 2014).
In 2016, she took the record for the most Pan Am titles, previously held by two-time Olympic Champion Mariel Zagunis (Beaverton, Ore.), when she claimed No. 7.
Kiefer has beaten opponents in the finals from the United States, Canada and Colombia and won more than 30 straight DE bouts over eight years.
She’s spent three of eight birthdays in that span of time at Zonals and last year she won title No. 8 on her 23rd birthday.
This year, the routine would continue in a new country with a new birthday and a new title on the line.
Kiefer flew to Havana, Cuba on Thursday and turned 24 on Friday. By Sunday she was back in competition mode, ready to claim title No. 9 and lead Team USA to six medals in one day.
The day would mark another double gold haul for the U.S. team as Eli Dershwitz (Sherborn, Mass.) won the men’s saber gold – the fifth gold medal of the weekend for Team USA in six events. Team USA’s Andrew Mackiewicz (Westwood, Mass.) and Daryl Homer (Bronx, N.Y.) won men’s saber bronzes and Kiefer was joined on the podium by bronze medalists Nicole Ross (New York City) and Nzingha Prescod (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Ranked No. 3 in the world, Kiefer opened the day with a 6-0 finish in pools to finish fifth in the seeding. Prescod, who won the 2009 Pan Am title, earned the No. 1 seed. Ross ended the round at seventh and Lu finished ninth.
With a bye into the table of 32, Kiefer qualified for the quarter-finals after a pair of 15-5 wins over Nataly Michel (MEX) and Anabella Acurero Gonzalez (VEN).
Fencing three-time Pan Am medalist Alanna Goldie (CAN) for a spot on the podium, the two-time Olympian saw Goldie take a 10-5 lead before Kiefer came back with three straight before the break. Kiefer claimed the first two touches in the second period to tie the score at 10 before Goldie responded with two touches of her own. Kiefer regrouped, however, pulling off five unanswered touches to put the bout to bed at 15-12.
“I didn’t have a lot of good discipline in the beginning and I kind of let the score get away from me and the whole time,” said Kiefer who was being coached by her fiancé Gerek Meinhardt (San Francisco, Calif.) – a three-time Olympian who won bronze on Saturday. “Gerek kept saying ‘Make sure you take the blade, make sure you don’t counterattack.’ He was just telling me these super basic things that I should be able to do on my own by now, but I definitely wasn’t in that bout.”
The semis would feature Kiefer fencing Prescod and Ross taking on Kelleigh Ryan (CAN) who took silver behind Kiefer at the 2014 Pan Ams.
In the earlier rounds, Prescod won quick bouts against Mariana Pistoia (VEN) and Flavia Johana Mormandi (ARG) by 15-8 and 15-6 scores, respectively.
Prescod fenced Lu in the quarters and built a 4-1 lead in the first before Lu came back with an 8-4 run to end the second at 9-8. Prescod would prevail in the third, however, winning the bout, 15-13, in the final minute. The win would guarantee a fifth career Pan Am medal for Prescod.
Ross dominated her first two bouts, defeating Laura Julieth Guerra Acosta (COL), 15-2, in the 32 and Melissa Rebolledo (MEX), 15-7, in the table of 16.
In the quarter-finals, Ross drew Eleanor Harvey (CAN) – an NCAA Champion for Ohio State who won bronze last month at the Shanghai Grand Prix. After a passivity period, Ross ended the second period with a touch in the final seconds to end the period with a 2-1 lead. In the third, Harvey scored three straight touches to tie the bout at seven. In overtime, Ross would score first to end with an 8-7 win and secure her fifth career Pan Am medal.
Kiefer fenced Prescod in the first semi with Prescod taking a 5-1 lead. Kiefer scored eight straight to push the score to 9-5 Prescod scored five of her own and Kiefer picked up one more for a tie at 10. By the end of the second period, Prescod regained a 14-13 lead before Kiefer ended the period with two touches to take the bout, 15-14.
“I love fencing Nzingha because it’s so hard and intense. As the bout showed, we both go on runs and we’re both mentally strong,” said Kiefer who has fenced on National Teams for more than a decade with Prescod since the two competed together at the 2008 Cadet Worlds where Prescod won gold and Kiefer took bronze. “Nzingha and I have been there since Day 1 together so it has a lot of feels to it, but we’ve definitely driven each other to be better.”
Ross fenced Ryan in the second semifinal where the Canadian built a 5-2 lead after the first two periods. In the third, Ryan continued to pick off touches as she with a 14-5 win.
Ryan took the lead against Kiefer several times in the first two periods, but Kiefer tied the score again at 11 and ended the second at 13-12.
“I had to be disciplined. I had to be aggressive, but everyone’s tired, so there was just a lot of teeth gnashing,” Kiefer said of the grueling bout. “I hit off target like 30 times in the first few minutes and that never happens to me. So that’s really frustrating when you’re doing good actions and they’re not landing.”
Kiefer’s attacks hit on point in the third, however, as she took two more touches in the first 17 seconds for a 15-12 win.
“I love this whole day. I don’t fence as many tournaments as I used to and being in that fight is so fun and sometimes you don’t even now you’re in the fight while you’re doing it. I just had three really intense bouts and feel proud that I survived them,” Kiefer said of the tenacity she used to pull out her hard-fought victory.
Despite the pressure of defending a title so many times that many of her opponents hadn’t even started fencing when she won her first Pan Am gold, Kiefer chose not to focus on the history she would make this year.
“It kind of goes up and down – the kind of stress you attach to that and the pressure you put on yourself. This week, I was just trying to make it a strong competition and that was a really positive thing for me,” she said. “In past years, I was like ‘I must do this. It’s my birthday.’ And it is Father’s Day. Thank God I didn’t think about that or it might have gotten the best of me. As I get older, being able to accept what will happen, but still fight hard for it. But I decided to feel grateful. It’s not an easy thing and I’ve gotten lucky more times than count, but I’ve decided to enjoy the ride today.”
Throughout the day, she had Meinhardt, her teammate on each of the last nine Pan Am teams as well as two Olympic Games in the coaching chair.
“Gerek knows my fencing better than anyone else because we train together all the, but he also knows me emotionally and he is always able to give me what I need,” Kiefer said. “He was great today, coming in early this morning after he fenced last night and helping warm me up and was there for every bout. It would be easy to get really frustrated with me, but he’s the best fiancé ever.”
After the victory, Kiefer looked back on the differences between herself at 16 when she stood on the podium the first time and the 24 year old who now holds two Senior World medals and titles at Pan Am, World Cup and Grand Prix events. With four NCAA titles during her time at Notre Dame and a year of medical school at the University of Kentucky under her belt, Kiefer chuckled at the memory of herself in her early years on the circuit.
“I would have crushed her as a fencer because 16 year old Lee was so wild. Gerek says that too. We’re like ‘How did we ever win?’” Kiefer laughed. “I’ve definitely achieved a lot, but I never really set a standard of where I wanted to get. Everyone always says Olympic medals, but I’m not done yet, so I’m not gonna say like ‘Oh, I didn’t get my medal yet.’ I didn’t earn it yet.”
Kiefer’s ninth historic win will put her one step closer to making more history as she pursues her goal of success at the 2020 Olympic Games. She will remain No. 3 in the world going into the Senior World Championships in Wuxi in July where she is a top candidate for an individual podium finish which would make her the first U.S. women’s foil fencer to win medals at two Senior World Championships and one of the most decorated fencers in American history.
In men’s saber, Dershwitz also is expected to enter the Senior Worlds as the No. 3 seed and a medal contender after winning his third Pan American title.
The 22 year old Rio Olympian entered the event as a two-time gold medalist who won titles in 2014 and 2015 and got to business in Havana quickly, posting not only six pool wins, but a +29 indicator as he dropped only one touch across all of the bouts.
“I started off today super disciplined. I went into my last bout +25 at 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, 5-0 and I kept telling myself that I’m fencing really smart and being really disciplined and really tactical and everything’s working and then in my last bout I gave up that one touch,” Dershwitz said of his near-perfect run. “But in the end, getting the W is what really matters.”
Dershwitz’s wins to make the podium wouldn’t come easy, however, as he fenced tight bouts in each of the next three rounds.
Fencing Manuel Bahamonde (CHI) in the 32, Dershwitz led the bout, 8-6, after the first before Bahamonde tied the score at 10 in the second. A 6-1 run, however, would put Dershwitz into the 16 with a 15-10 win.
In the 16, Adrian Acuna Ramirez (MEX) kept Dershwitz to a one-touch lead in the first before he scored three straight to end the period at 8-4. In the second, Dershwitz gave up just four more touches to win the bout, 15-8.
The quarters would pit Dershwitz against Ben Natanzon (Manalapan, N.J.) – a two-time Junior World Team member who made the top eight in Havana at his first Senior Pan Ams. Natanzon started strong with a 5-2 lead, but Dershwitz tied the score at eight in the second before closing with a 7-2 run and a 15-10 victory.
“There were a few close bouts, but I just kept trying to keep overcoming a few mental mistakes that I was making early on in the rounds. As soon as I fixed those, I started fencing really well,” Dershwitz said. “I was moving up and down the strip really well. I’m happy I’ve increased the amount of footwork and strength training I’ve been doing and just feel like I was moving really well and physically I was feeling amazing all day so really it was a mental battle to be able to stay disciplined throughout the entire day.”
Dershwitz’s semifinal opponent would be 2016 Olympic silver medalist Daryl Homer (Bronx, N.Y.) in their third matchup at the Pan Ams in the last four years.
Homer earned his position in the semis with wins over Hudson Santana (PUR), 15-8; Pascual Di Tella (ARG), 15-10; and Eliecer Romero (VEN), 15-10.
Andrew Mackiewicz (Westwood, Mass.), a 2014 Junior World team bronze medalist, earned a position on the podium for the second time in three Senior Pan Am outings.
After a 15-8 win over Martin Exequiel Lora Grunwaldt (ARG) in the 64, Mackiewicz held off 2016 Pan Am bronze medalist Jose Quintero (VEN), 15-13, and Julian Ayala (MEX), 15-12, to qualify for the semis.
Dershwitz and Homer have fenced just twice previously in international competition with Homer winning their gold medal bout at the 2017 Pan Ams and Dershwitz defeating Homer to win the 2015 Pan Ams.
This time, Dershwitz controlled the semi against Homer from the start, holding an 8-3 lead after the first period and taking the win, 15-8, in the second.
In the second semi, Mackiewicz trailed Shaul Gordon (CAN), 8-3, at the break and made a comeback in the second period before the Canadian finished the win, 15-10.
In the finals, Dershwitz took an 8-5 lead over Gordon and didn’t look back, finishing the bout at 15-9.
“I’m just happy that all my hard work at home is showing up and paying off on the strip. It feels really good, especially it’s the first tournament my family has been at in a very long time and on Father’s Day, obviously to have my dad there, he was really happy,” Dershwitz said. “My mom was there – always my No. 1 fan and my No. 1 supporter. My older brother was there. He’s the reason I got into fencing. He always pushed me when I was a little kid first starting. He was pushing me to be better, so to be able to get a great result like that in front of my family, it means a lot.”
The gold medal win marks the third international title this season for Dershwitz who won World Cups in Algiers and Padua to reach a career-high No. 3 world ranking.
“I felt great for most of the season. I know my world ranking has gone up from the start of the season up until now at a pretty consistent rate, so I’m just going to try to spend the next few weeks training as hard as I can. I want to medal at World Championships,” Dershwitz said. “I want to finish the season No. 1 in the world. Obviously those are lofty goals and goals I’ve had in the past, but in the past they were more of idealistic goals – stuff that I could eventually reach – but now I really feel like I’m at a level where I could reach some of these top goals and actually compete with the best in the world.”
Top eight and U.S. results are as follows:
Women’s Foil Pan American Championships
1. Lee Kiefer (Lexington, Ky.)
2. Kelleigh Ryan (CAN)
3. Nicole Ross (New York City)
3. Nzingha Prescod (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
5. Eleanor Harvey (CAN)
6. Alanna Goldie (CAN)
7. Saskia Loretta Van Erven Garcia (COL)
8. Margaret Lu (Greenwich, Conn.)
Men’s Saber Pan American Championships
1. Eli Dershwitz (Sherborn, Mass.)
2. Shaul Gordon (CAN)
3. Andrew Mackiewicz (Westwood, Mass.)
3. Daryl Homer (Bronx, N.Y.)
5. Eliecer Romero (VEN)
6. Ben Natanzon (Manalapan, N.J.)
7. Julian Ayala (MEX)
8. Ricardo Alvarez (CHI)
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