COLUMBUS, Ohio — Less than two hours before the women’s finals at the NCAA Fencing Championships began Friday, Notre Dame teammates Lee Kiefer and Madison Zeiss were the lone fencers practicing at French Field House.
And that‘s not actually a stunner. They are hotel roommates this week in Columbus. A week ago at this time, they were in Germany together competing in a World Cup event.
Not long after their impromptu practice session, they were standing face to face on the main stage at Ohio State’s St. John Arena, ready to duel for the women’s foil NCAA championship.
“We were just so happy we made it here,” said Kiefer, a sophomore who was on the U.S. women’s foil squad that finished sixth at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “We’re proud of ourselves and proud of each other. It was a good time.”
Kiefer defeated Zeiss 13-10 for her second consecutive NCAA title, becoming just the fifth women’s fencer in NCAA history to win the national title in both her freshman and sophomore seasons.
Afterward, the two congratulated each other. They hugged. They posed for pictures together. Still close friends. Would you expect anything else from these two?
“We knew going into this, no matter what happened, it’ll be the same,” said Zeiss, who advanced to the final by winning eight consecutive matches. “We’re roommates. We’re going to go back to the room and it’s going to be the same.”
Notre Dame coach Janusz Bednarski could sit back and enjoy this one. No matter who won and no matter who lost, the Fighting Irish would get the gold medal and silver medal points in the team standings.
“It was a teammate bout. It was a coach’s dream to have in the final my own people,” Bednarski said.
The championship match capped off a tournament in which Kiefer won 21 bouts. One of her three losses during round-robin play was to her older sister, Alexandra Kiefer of Harvard. Many of Lee Keifer’s matches were close, reflecting her status as returning champion and a 2012 Olympian who is ranked No. 12 in the world.
“Last year I didn’t know what was happening,” Kiefer said. “You just go in there and [say], ‘I need to win every single match.’
“This year was so much harder. It was just so frustrating because there’s so many close battles and they can go either way for everyone. I had to stay focused. It was a hard day.”
Kiefer rallied from a two-point deficit in the semifinals against Alanna Goldie of Ohio State in the semifinals, but eventually won, 15-11, to reach the championship match.
The tournament championship marked another achievement for Kiefer, who is one of the rising fencers on the USA Fencing National Team. She has finished among the top eight in her last two World Cup competitions, included sixth at last week’s Tauberbischofsheim World Cup in Germany.
Five years ago she was the youngest member of the U.S. Senior National Team at age 15. At 17, she medaled at the senior, junior and cadet world championships. A year after that, she was in the Olympic Games.
She is part of a fencing family that includes Alexandra, who won an NCAA individual title her freshman year; younger brother Axel, who has been on two USA Fencing cadet world teams; and her father, Steven, who was captain of the fencing team at Duke.
During the two days of round-robin competition held in multiple competition areas, Kiefer sat with her sister, Alexandra, and walked through the arena with her when she wasn’t with Zeiss or Notre Dame men’s fencer Garek Meinhardt, a 2012 Olympic teammate.
Even considering all her worldly travels, competing for Notre Dame and being with her friends tugs closely at her heart.
“She’s a great teammate. She always wants the best for the team,” said Notre Dame women’s team captain Ashley Severson. “Even though she’s been traveling so much, she’s always there and supporting and giving everything she has for each tournament. I’m really lucky to have her as a teammate and a friend.”
“She’s awesome,” Zeiss said. “We train together. We’ll mess around. We’ll fence for fun, then we’ll fence competitively. We’ll do drills together.
“We work really well together. It’s great to have her as a teammate.”