Lexington’s Lee Keifer dominant in unprecedented ninth Pan Am gold

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Pan Am Champions Lee Kiefer of Lexington and Eli Dershwitz. Photo courtesy USA Fencing.

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HAVANA, Cuba (USA Fencing) – Lexington’s Lee Kiefer has dominated the women’s foil individual event at the Pan American Championships in a way no other fencer has.

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 on Sunday, 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.

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.

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