Our guest is Lee Kiefer, Olympic champion and the most successful women’s foil fencer in U.S. history. At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, she brought home a gold medal in foil, becoming the first American foil fencer — woman or man — to win individual Olympic gold in that weapon.
In this episode of First to 15, we're joined by Lee Kiefer, Olympic champion and the most successful women’s foil fencer in U.S. history.
First to 15: The Official Podcast of USA Fencing
Host: Bryan Wendell
Cover art: Manna Creations
Theme music: Brian Sanyshyn
[00:00:01] BW: Hello, and welcome to First to 15, the official podcast of USA Fencing. I'm your host, Bryan Wendell, and in this show you're going to hear from some of the most inspiring, interesting, and insanely talented people in the sport we all love. First to 15 is for anyone in the fencing community and even for those just checking out fencing to see what it's all about. So whether you're an Olympian or a Paralympian, a newcomer, a seasoned veteran, a fencing parent, a fan, or anyone else in this wonderful community, this podcast is for you. With that, let's get to today's episode. Enjoy.
[00:00:40] BW: Today's guest really needs no introduction, but we're going to do one anyway. Olympic champion, Lee Kiefer, is the most successful women's foil fencer in US history. At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo last year, she brought home a gold medal in foil, becoming the first American foil fencer woman or man to win individual Olympic gold in that weapon. She's also a four-time NCAA champion, a 10-time Pan American champion, and in 2018 helped the US bring home a world championship in the women's foil team event.
So, Lee Kiefer, hello. Thank you for joining us on the podcast.
[00:01:14] LK: Thanks for having me today.
[00:01:16] BW: So I read a great story about you, and it said that when you were seven, you would ride from your home in Lexington, Kentucky to a fencing club in Louisville, which is a 90-minute drive each way. So what do you remember from those trips to Louisville and also just your first experiences in the fencing club?
[00:01:36] LK: I remember trying to do homework in the car. I was with my siblings, who also started fencing at the same time, and we're all crammed together in the backseat of my dad's Camry. He was the true hero for driving us back and forth all the time. But, yeah, a lot of family bonding time and then, of course, fencing is such a weird sport. When you start the footwork, at least for me, it wasn't intuitive. The timing, distance, everything was wrong. I was not good at fencing, and I think my parents are like kind of, “Stick with it. You need to have some sport exposure for your development as a human.” I get that. Then my anger and competitive spirit took over. I hated to lose, so I learned how to win.
[00:02:31] BW: Nice. Yeah. So you did. In those early days, you hear about these soccer players who will visualize and pretend like they're winning the world cup, kicking the game, winning gold in the World Cup as they kick the ball against the garage door 1,000 times, right? What were your fencing dreams at that early age? Were you thinking all the way to the Olympics? Or were you thinking, “Let's get to a tournament and win there.”?
[00:02:55] LK: Definitely not thinking of the Olympics for the first five years of my career. I mean, seven is so young. You don't even know what the Olympics are, to be honest. I think a really smart thing my parents did when we’re younger is they started us in a lot of regional competitions. So from early on, even though there weren't tons of people or wasn't super strong, I was competing. So were my siblings. That practice helped us learn, I think, intensity.
But also, it was really distressing and painful to lose. I think that was a big learning lesson for me from a young age that kind of helps me organize, develop my priorities because, like I said, I was a small child. But then my mentality changed where I'm like, “Oh, I can have friends. Fencing is actually fun, and eventually I get to travel.” So I think that was a really key starting point.
[00:04:00] BW: Yeah. I think that's interesting. You mentioned some of those early tournaments. What were you like at those tournaments? I see some fencers are calm and Zen, and then others are intense. They're running around, getting crazy warm ups. What was your tournament persona back then, and has it changed now?
[00:04:16] LK: Well, as we had to drive for our practice, we also had to drive for competitions, and we would sleep in the car, as my mom drove us many times. I'd get there. I'd be super groggy. Then they place one of those like Starbucks Frappuccinos in our hands, so we would get sugar loaded. Pretty early on, I had an aggressive fencing style, which was good and bad. But basically, I would just attack, attack, attack, attack. Sometimes, I still do that but more so in my youthful days.
[00:04:56] BW: Interesting. So you gave a shout out to your parents for driving you. What were some of the other things that they did to kind of foster your early success as a fencer?
[00:05:06] LK: Yeah. So I think it was a really cool move to put all three of us. I have an older sister, who used to be an amazing fencer before she retired, same with my younger brother. So being from Kentucky, there's not tons of people fencing at this point. We had each other to like push each other and learn, become problem solvers, as well as deal with all of the highs and lows of that relationship. That was very, very well-played on their part. Yeah. I hated fencing at first because it was hard and confusing, as I hinted at. Yeah. Their philosophy that you have to put your head down, work, and learn in order to become good at something, which I think is an important step to enjoying something.
[00:06:04] BW: So we talked about, at the beginning, your list of accomplishments, and it goes on and on. But I want to talk about a big moment kind of earlier in your career. In 2011, you want to bronze at Worlds and became just the second us woman to earn an individual foil medal. So what did that success 10 years before you were an Olympic champion, what did that do for you and your confidence?
[00:06:27] LK: Looking back on it, I was definitely on a good path with my training. I have a great coach. I was traveling to all the tournaments. But there was a lot of luck involved. The 2008 women's foil team in Beijing, they got that historic silver metal. But then three out of the four of them retired, and that kind of left me in a good position. So there was that I have to acknowledge. I think at that point in 2011, I didn't have many inhibitions because I was so young. You're working your way to the top, and you don't have doubts or worries. It doesn't matter if I do bad or not. No one cares. The stars align for multiple reasons, also including luck on that day.
But once I got that result, to be honest, that put me on the 2012 Olympic team. So that gave me another sense of security, where then I had more confidence than I would going into that whole season of qualification, if that makes sense.
[00:07:42] BW: Yeah, sure.
[00:07:43] LK: I don't like to give myself too much credit here because it's so multifactorial, as is ever winning a big medal. But it was definitely a pivotal moment in making me believe.
[00:07:56] BW: Yeah, sure. Then, like you said, you made it to the 2012 Olympics. Then you were also on the 2016 team in Rio. Then after Rio, you told a reporter that you were probably not going to try for Tokyo, so starting your career in medicine. What changed for you that made you say, “Actually, I am going to go for Tokyo.”? Obviously, it's great you did.
[00:08:18] LK: Yeah. In many of my interviews during that time period, I was in a really bad space. I had all of these hopes and dreams for Rio, and I did not reach them, and I was very sad. This isn't just like I'm sad like a few days after. I was like very sad for a long time. But I had to go back to college, finish my senior year, and I still had NCAA fencing. I still had my team. I have my friends. I was like, “I'm going to focus on this. It's going to be a really nice way to end my career.” But, of course, I'm still a little competitive. So I'm like, “I need to go to international tournaments still to like keep my skills fresh because I want to crush NCAA fencing nationals.”
So I went out in that season and no pressure, again just trying to enjoy my last bit of fencing. I drove to the World number one. I was winning like all of these 15-14 touch bouts. Every time I was at 14-14, I felt like I got this. Like this is the place I want to be. Yeah. So I reached this point where it's like, “Oh, my god. I'm going to med school, but now I'm enjoying fencing again.” I communicated to the med school, to my family, to Gerek, who was my boyfriend at the time, now husband. Yeah. Everyone's like, “You got to keep going.” I was like, “Okay, I'm going to be crazy and do it.”
[00:09:49] BW: So you have all that momentum. Then, of course, the pandemic happens. Back in 2020, where were you in your physical training and mental headspace right before they announced the postponement? Like how were you feeling? Let’s say if the games had gone on in 2020, how are you feeling at that moment?
[00:10:07] LK: I was in a good headspace. There was one more qualification tournament left that I had already locked my position. So was Gerek. That was reassuring. So we are going into the Anaheim Grand Prix, just trying to get some last good practice before these final training camps and getting to Tokyo. Yeah. I had taken time off from med school for this. Everything seemed like it was going according to plan.
Then the world shut down. Our first thoughts weren't about fencing, to be honest. We're hoping if things could resolve, if loved ones could say healthy. Like it's fine if fencing doesn't happen. That was like I think a lot of people's mentality for the first few months of the pandemic.
[00:11:00] BW: Yeah. Then how did you spend that extra year between the original time and when it actually happened?
[00:11:07] LK: Yeah. So I went back to school for a while. My third year of medical school requires you to be in the hospital all day doing your rotations, trying to figure out what specialty you want to go into, and there was really not time for fencing at this point. So it worked out well that I had that shift to kind of maybe take my mind off of the Olympics but also to immerse myself more in school. That worked out for a while, until the Olympics. The date was back on, and I had to start training again. Then it was full panic mode. I was like, “Oh, my god. What am I going to do?” I was a mess, and I was entering panic mode.
Eventually, I talked to the College of Medicine again. I told them my situation. I don't know if this is a theme in my life, but I just like hype everything up and get so worried people are going to be like, “No. Fencing is stupid. You can't do this anymore.” But, of course, they're like, “Oh, you're in a unique situation. You've done a great job so far. Of course, you can go to the Olympics. Take time off to train.” I was like, “Thank you.”
But I had enough time to get back into shape. While the clubs were still shut down, Gerek and I built a strip in my parents’ basement and fenced there. So we did. We made it work, and we're able to get back to our strongest.
[00:12:42] BW: That brings us to Tokyo 2020 or 2021, however you want to refer to it. I know you've gotten to travel the world a lot for fencing. But I imagine it was a little bit different in Tokyo because you were in a bubble, right? So what was it like just being kind of locked down and not able to really go anywhere?
[00:13:01] LK: For me, because I have been to other Olympic Games, I think my mentality was a little bit different. First and foremost, I was their defense, and I had a good opportunity for a medal, which might have not been like the case before. I knew what to expect in terms of the excitement, and I knew that I could have just as much fun and as much of an experience, just being in the Olympic bubble and just being able to compete in general, having that gratitude that the Olympics are not canceled. So, yes, mentally I think I was in a very secure, prepared spot.
I would say if that was my first games, that would have not been the case, whatsoever. But, yeah, I had the best time with Sabrina who was my roommate, also one of my best friends, as well as with Gerek. We engaged in all of the Olympic Village things like [inaudible 00:14:01] training and going to the dining hall at 2:00 in the morning. Yes, I had a great time.
[00:14:10] BW: Then you had a great time in the competition, obviously. When you watch – So we've all seen the video of your final touch and the reaction that you had and just the joy that we can see. Do you go back and watch that video now. If you do, like what are you thinking when you when you look at yourself in that moment now?
[00:14:26] LK: I have not watched my bout, actually. I've seen the final cut clip a lot of times, and I was not happy with my action. Clearly, it works. But when the bout is close, you do not want to react like that in that moment. Like the way I scored, I was like, “Ah, I practiced so many scenarios to do everything but that.” But sometimes, letting your instincts take over is the best course to go. But once I get past like the technicalities of the fencing itself, absolutely still surprised. I have no idea how that was me who walked away with that gold medal.
I would say I feel that way about that situation in like a positive surprised way. But I did practice my confidence, I guess, in the whole season leading up to it. Like I knew I had the skills and the ability to win. But doing it, you can't anticipate how that feels.
[00:15:36] BW: Sure, yeah. Then, I mean, you've been on the top of a lot of medal stands. But I imagine that one was quite different feeling. What was going through your head as you stepped up to the highest perch in fencing?
[00:15:49] LK: Just grateful, grateful for just everyone who's given themselves to help my journey and just happy to still be fencing. I love fencing. As you know, I always think I have to retire or I give myself to the sport. Just being there was such a joy.
[00:16:14] BW: That's so cool. As you know, when you win that Olympic gold medal, you're an Olympic champion for the rest of your life, right? In the immediate aftermath, I know you're on the Today Show. So you're talking with Hoda, and Savannah, and Craig. Then I imagine that opened some sponsorship doors for you and then interview requests, obviously. What are some of the other ways that your life has changed since you got that gold medal?
[00:16:38] LK: Well, I'm still fencing, and it's hard to say what path I would have taken, if I hadn't come away with a medal. Really, I don't know. Like I hope I would be in the same spot, still wanting to learn and do something that I love. But that might not be the reality. People are less understanding and, honestly, less respectful of your journey when you don't have something to show for it, which I've always battled with that in my career, having a sense of worth without having a medal.
I know a lot of other people feel that way too, and I feel like that's kind of the worst part of my medal for me is I see how people treat me now. I'm like, “I feel like you should have treated me like this before.” Does that make sense?
[00:17:33] BW: Yeah.
[00:17:34] LK: It's kind of a strange, complex dynamic.
[00:17:37] BW: Yeah. It's almost implying that like an Olympic medal is not the only mark of a successful fencing career, right?
[00:17:44] LK: It is not. Yeah.
[00:17:45] BW: Yeah, that's well said. You mentioned Gerek a couple of times. For those who don't know, that's a Olympic foil fencer, Gerek Meinhardt. He's a four-time Olympian, two-time Olympic bronze medalist. When I think about married couples, typically they have drastically different careers. One spouse does A. The other spouse does Z, right? But that's not the case with you and Gerek. So you mentioned being able to fence together during the quarantine, lockdown. What are some other examples of what it's like being married to someone who understands your career better than anybody else?
[00:18:18] LK: Yeah. I think the term like work-life balance doesn't apply to us. Everything is woven together in terms of being athletes, and we travel, let's say, to visit Gerek’s family in San Francisco. But then we're also there to train too. So all of our life, I don't know, has morphed into this really cool, unique experience. I would say it's really nice being in a relationship with someone who has similar experiences like this. A lot can go unspoken.
I know I take a lot for granted, like emotional understanding, just all the highs and lows. I mean, we both have a really strong understanding of the game too. So from not just like physically training with each other, like Gerek has helped me with so many bouts, just being able to coach me and knowing me too. I think that’s cool.
[00:19:27] BW: Yeah, definitely. He can identify maybe some techniques you can try. You're also known as somebody who gives back to the next generation of fencers, meeting fans. I know you've been a guest coach and coached younger fencers. So why do you do that? You're busy with your medical career and your fencing career. Why is it important to you to connect with those younger fans?
[00:19:48] LK: Growing up, I didn't realize that at the time, but I had some incredible role models from a relative distance. Iris Zimmermman and Emily Cross are both half-Asian females who have conquered the fencing scene and gone to the Olympics, and both of them have been so kind to me and so encouraging. Yeah, I was definitely empowered by them, whether or not I knew it from a young age. As I got older, I was like, “Oh, my god. Thank you for being there for me.”
I think it's such a simple thing I can do for the generation after me is just feel like you can be a nice, friendly person, and you can still be a queen and like win those bouts and be intense. You can also be a cry baby and also have heartbreak and joy, and that can be a full life. Even though we all have a little bit of a different journey, I just want them to feel like they can do their journey.
[00:20:59] BW: Do you have advice that you'd like to share, like a key thing that you tell this next generation to encourage them when they say, “How do I get to be an Olympic champion like you?”
[00:21:11] LK: One thing I always recommend is to not worry about losing, especially in practice. Take that time to try new actions, to be creative, and to have fun. I was able to do this when I was younger, and I think it gave me accessibility to so many different actions and strategic thinking. Not everyone's going to fence like me. They’re going to fence like themselves and have that success. But like opening up their own style is huge, especially at a young age.
[00:21:54] BW: That's great. That's great advice. Finally, Paris 2024 is a couple years away. What's your trajectory looking like for Paris?
[00:22:03] LK: So I am still on a break from medical school to try to make this super big push. I will tell you, the older you get, the harder it gets. It’s kind of that mental aspect that kind of squeezes that on you. So anticipating this, I have to purposely enjoy these next few years, and our plan is to travel, try to train with some amazing people, try to explore the world a little bit, and always go back to your roots, and remember to grind. So coming in with our experience but mostly having fun.
[00:22:48] BW: That's great, well said. It's been fun talking to you and watching you and your career. Thanks so much, Lee Kiefer, for joining us on the podcast.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:22:58] BW: Thanks for listening to First to 15, the official podcast of USA Fencing. We'll be back with our next conversation in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, you can stay up to date on all the latest fencing news by following us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you liked this podcast, please help us grow and reach more people by leaving us a rating or review. Until next time, I'm Bryan Wendell, and I hope to see you real soon out on the Strip. Bye.