On Global Filipinos: Lee Kiefer: The 1st American to win Olympic Gold in fencing

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

When TOFA 2021 (The Outstanding Filipinos in America) introduced Lee Kiefer as the Tokyo Olympic Gold Winner in the esoteric event Individual Foil Fencing — defeating reigning Olympic Champion Russian Inna Deriglazova — the audience of mostly Filipino ancestry at Weill Carnegie Hall gave her the loudest applause.  

So the question I asked Lee in a recent interview are: How are you of Philippine descent and living in Kentucky become a Foil Fencer, specializing in a European sport popular in the Middle Ages? 

Her grandmother, Teresita Bacani, a native of Davao, finished medical school at the University of Santo Tomas and took her residency in Kentucky. Before she left for the U.S., she told her boyfriend then, Ricardo Oropilla that it may be years before she would be back. He faithfully waited for her. When she returned three years later, they got married, in Davao. 

However, when their daughter Teresa was 10 years old and their son Joseph was 11 years old, they decided to go back to Kentucky.  Teresa decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and studied medicine (major in Psychiatry) at the University of Louisville where she met another medical student, Steven Kiefer. They got married after graduation and now have three children: Lee’s older sister Alexandra; Lee, the middle child; and her younger brother Axel.

With her mom Teresa and grandmother Teresita Bacani Oropilla at her white coat ceremony as a medical student. Photos provided by Kiefer family

When their father was an undergraduate student, he took up fencing as a walk-in enthusiast when there was an open slot at Duke University. He loved it and became good at it to become captain of the Fencing team.

When Lee was 6 years old, her neurosurgeon father took up the sport again and started to join competitions. All the three siblings were thrown into the sport also known as the “nobility’s combat sport.” Their father taught them the basics and then started to take them to his fencing club twice a week.

She told NBC, “It started as a family activity, which we enjoyed and dreaded based on the day and developed into something that we were good at, gave us focus, helped us make friends and allowed us to see new places.”

Lee started to win when she was 16 years old. Her first Gold Medal was awarded in 2010 at the Pan American Championship. Before the Tokyo Olympics 2021, Lee was a four-time NCAA champion, 10-time team Pan American champion, nine-time individual Pan American champion and 2018 World Champion. She competed in the 2012 London Olympic Games, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, and her recent victory was at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. 

To prepare for Tokyo, she took off a break from her studies at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine for six months. She would practice with her coach and other players five days a week for two to three hours each day. She did strength building by lifting weights and sprinting four to five days a week. She did video analysis once a week and sports psychology once a month to learn how to handle the stress of competing, of balancing study and sport. Fencing, Lee stressed, requires not only skill, but also physical and mental strength, calm but intense spirit and “most of all, it must be fun.”

In order to win in the sport, you must touch your opponent’s body with the tip of the sword 15 times. So the referee called Lee’s 15th touch over the 13th touch of the Russian Inna. Lee was briefly overwhelmed, and then ecstatic. She worked so hard to win this. 

For the Kiefers of Kentucky, fencing is a family affair.  Lee with parents Steven and Teresa and siblings Alexandra and Axel.

Her husband, Gerek Meinhardt — whose mother is Taiwanese and father of German descent — married Lee in September 2020. He is also an Olympic medalist whom Lee saw compete in Beijing Olympics 2008 when she was 14 and had a crush on him. They began dating in January 2012, and got engaged in January 2018. He is also a medical student. 

Here’s a fun fact:  Her sister Alex is a former Harvard foil fencer and 2011 NCAA champion; she is now a doctor. Her brother Axel was the 2015 USA Fencing National Champion Junior Gold Medalist, and second in the 2018 NCAA Championship. He is also studying to be a medical doctor. 

At the TOFA event, Lee spoke about her grandmother, Teresita Bacani Oropilla, 92 years old, who called her one week before she departed for Tokyo, “Go to the Olympics. Be brave. Fight hard and believe in yourself.”

Armed with that encouragement, Lee Kiefer fought with focus, determination and inner strength. She emerged victorious as the first American, male or female, to win the gold medal in Olympic individual foil. And she is a Filipino American. 

© The FilAm 2021

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