Lexington’s Lee Kiefer shows the emotion of becoming the first U.S. foil fencer to win an Olympic Gold Medal. (USA Fencing Photo)
Years ago his daughter’s coach told Dr. Steve Kiefer that she possessed special abilities in her sport.
“Yeah, and pay for more lessons,” said Kiefer.
It’s a message many parents have heard when their children start competing in sports but this time the coach was right about Lee Kiefer and her foil fencing talent. Soon she was competing domestically and advanced to where she was flying to Europe twice a month with her father to compete in weekend events with the majority of time spent in the gymnasium.
“Her coach was right. She could do this,” the Lexington neurosurgeon said Wednesday.
The University of Kentucky med student became the first U.S. foil fencer — and third U.S. fencer of any kind — to win Olympic gold Sunday in Tokyo. She beat defending Olympic champion Inna Deriglazova of Russia 15-13 in the finals. The Russian have won four of the last six bouts against Lee Kiefer, 27.
“It has been long awaited,” Dr. Kiefer said. “I am still not sure I have processed it. I am still waiting to wake up from the elaborate dream I am having. My daughter is just amazing. But even then the stars have to align just right even at this level.”
Dr. Kiefer was captain of the fencing team at Duke. His oldest daughter, Alexandra, won the 2011 NCAA championship in foil fencing at Harvard. His on, Axel, went to Notre Dame and was 2019 NCAA runner-up. Lee Kiefer was a four-time NCAA champion at Notre Dame.
Axel, a left-hander, trained and worked with his sister and her husband, Gerek Meinhart — who won an Olympic foil fencing medal in the 2016 Olympics — to help prepare them for Tokyo
Dr. Kiefer wanted her to “fence well” more than win the gold medal.
“Even when you compete well in this sport it does not always translate to results,” he said. “In the fencing community, it is about style and form and those pay off in results. I just wanted her to have a good experience and look like the Lee I know. She’s physical, but she’s a ballerina at the same time because she is so light on her feet. I was just thinking if this turned out to be her last competition I wanted her to be remembered as eloquent, effective, smart and a great fencer.”
This was his daughter’s third Olympic Games and he knew she was “better” than her performance in Rio when she dealt with sickness during the competition.
“I was really depressed. I knew that was not who she is or was,” Dr. Kiefer said.
Kiefer and his wife were in New York with their other daughter to watch the Olympics. Lee Kiefer Face-timed with her mother after her quarterfinal win because it was her birthday.
“So right in the middle of the competition she called her mom,” Dr. Kiefer said. “She said then she was working on a plan for the big girls (in the semifinal and final). The Russians are physically bigger and stronger than she is but she was very content and at ease.
“After she won the gold medal, she called about 30 minutes later. I have never seen anybody with such a look of ease and contentment. She is competitive and has a little bit of an edge naturally, but she is also the most caring person I know. She has a big heart but is intense. However, I have never seen such a look of contentment after she won. It just melted me.”
Kiefer twins at Bluegrass Fencer’s Club in Lexington but actually practiced in her parents’ basement at times during the pandemic. She withdrew from medical school at UK in March to finish training for the Olympics.
“She needs to get back to medical school but that will be a bit hard to do right now,” Dr. Kiefer laughed and said. “She may or may not retire (from fencing). UK was incredibly supportive of her and made this possible by giving her an element of flexibility that has not existed in prior years.”
The surgeon knows fencing is a “niche” sport that won’t garner attention in Lexington that UK basketball or football will. However, he said the city has been “very supportive” and he often has patients ask about his daughter’s career.
“People take interest and that obviously will probably increase a lot more now,” he said.
He’s not exactly sure when his daughter and son-in-law will return to Lexington because team members will get time to “decompress” in Hawaii after finishing their competition.
“This has been five years in the making. It’s just a gauntlet and a rigorous grind,” Dr. Kiefer said. “I just know I was both ecstatic and dumbfounded watching. I want to feel like I am the guy who pointed her in the right direction but her coach really brought out her skills. I just know I could not be prouder.”