Dispatching From Rio: Lee Keifer, US Fencer

by Grace Masback

For Lee Keifer, sport, and more specifically fencing, runs in the family. Her father was the captain of Duke’s fencing team, and both her brother and sister fenced competitively in college. Keifer, who is Filipino-American, also happens to be dating a Greek fencer. She began participating in the sport at age seven, and her father quickly recognized her skill and competitive spirit. She has soared since. She won Bronze in the 2011 World Championships, finished 5th in the London Olympics in 2012, and is now rated #1 in the USA. In Rio, although she was largely favored to win a medal, she had a disappointing loss in the round of 16. She is the second U.S. women’s foil fencer ever to win a medal at the World Championships and the first athlete to win seven consecutive individual titles at the Pan American Championships. On top of all her accomplishments, Kiefer is currently in college, studying pre-med at Notre Dame. She has indicated that this is likely her last Olympics and plans to stop fencing competitively in order to pursue a career as a doctor. School of Doodle had the chance to sit down with Keifer to talk about her accomplishments, her goals, and her ambitions. Read our Q & A below!

School of Doodle: When and how did you begin fencing?

Lee Keifer: I started fencing when I was seven years old. My dad fenced in college at Duke and introduced my two siblings and me to the sport. He showed us basic footwork at our house, and then we started to commute to a fencing club once a week in Louisville to work with a coach.

SOD: What role have sports played in your life?

LK: Fencing has been an aspect of every part of my life. When I was in middle school, it taught me how to manage my time and become organized. As I became older, it taught me how to prioritize and make sacrifices. For example, I missed prom and other social activities for competitions and practice. Then, to catch up on schoolwork after tournaments, I would have to stay up late and wake up early as well as continue the routine of training and school. As I entered college, I viewed fencing as a privilege. I was grateful for having the opportunity to travel to different countries, make friends, and compete at a high level.

SOD: What are the greatest lessons you took from your experiences as a world-class athlete?

LK: As a world-class athlete, I learned that winning is not the most important thing. No matter how many medals you win and how much success you have, having integrity is more important. Fencing is an amazing sport because I have been able to do something that I love while also learning how to work hard, how to respect others, and how to be grateful. By constantly putting effort into being the best athlete I can be, I have had success in many areas of my life.

SOD: What is your pre-competition ritual (if you have one)?

LK: I do not have a real pre-ritual routine, but I have a superstition that if I bring my warm ups for the podium then I will not medal!

SOD: What was it like to balance both serious sports and serious academics in college? How were you able to find balance in your life?

LK: It is definitely challenging to balance both academics and athletics. I am fortunate to have had a supportive university where my coaches and teachers will work with my competition and academic schedules. Even with their help, it takes a lot of time management and communication to make sure every aspect is successful. It can be frustrating when I feel that I cannot do both fencing or school with a 100% effort, but if I take a step back to reflect, I know that all of my decisions have helped me mature into the well-rounded person that I want to be.

SOD: What was your experience like in Rio? What did you learn? What would you do differently in the future?

LK: I did not compete at my best in Rio. Although I prepared to the best of my ability physically, I did not have the focus and discipline in the moment to beat my opponent. I also give credit to my opponent for being prepared and intense. If I could redo the competition, I would try to put less pressure on myself and have fun during the weeks leading up to the tournament. It is hard to mentally prepare for an event such as the Olympics because you work towards it most of your life and it all happens in one day. After having time to look back, I think that remembering why I love the sport is as important as training.

SOD: What was your favorite part of Rio outside of the sports?

LK: My favorite tourist part of Rio was going to mosaic steps called Escadaria Selaron in Santa Teresa [a set of steps decorated with tiles by the Chilean-born artist, Jorge Selaron]. The colors were vivid and beautiful with eclectic pictures.

SOD: What do you like to do when you are not fencing?

LK: That is always one of the hardest questions! When I am not fencing, I am usually sleeping. A fun fact that is not really a hobby is that I enjoy hiding and scaring people.

SOD: What has your experience been like being a female in sports? What advice would you give to young girls aspiring to become professional athletes?

LK: Being a female in sports can be tough. When I was younger, the boys would sometimes exclude me during recess football and basketball even though I was just as athletic as them. For a long time, I was very persistent and people started to respect me both as an athlete and a person. For young girls, I would also advise them to also be persistent. If you develop a passion for something, you should work hard and put in the hours. It will be hard and you will hate it at times, but you should set a long-term goal and remind yourself constantly.

SOD: What do you see in your future? Will fencing continue to play a major part in your life?

LK: In the future, I plan to go to medical school. I do not know what type of doctor I want to be because there are so many interesting specialties. As for fencing, I am undecided whether I will go for Tokyo 2020. I have one more year at Notre Dame, where I will continue to go to World Cups and fencing collegiate tournaments!

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