'Superstar' Lee Kiefer led Notre Dame's drive to fencing title

Zach Klonsinski
Tribune Correspondent

Entering last weekend’s NCAA championships as a three-time NCAA champion, two-time Olympian and the current No. 1 women’s foilist in the world, Lee Kiefer had won a few high-profile bouts in her fencing career.

But when the Notre Dame senior from Versailles, Ky., out-touched Cornell’s Lyubov Kiriakidi, 5-1, during preliminary-round action Sunday in Indianapolis, Kiefer added a new line to her resume: NCAA team champion.

Not that anyone bothered to tell her.

Kiefer’s victory set off a celebration among the Irish contingent inside the Indiana Farmers Coliseum; they knew she had just clinched Notre Dame's ninth team championship in program history and the first since 2011.

Kiefer didn’t, though.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Kiefer said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many people cheering for me’ afterward, but I wasn’t even fencing anyone that cool.”

Not that the team championship was a nail-biter: Notre Dame tallied 186 points over the weekend — well ahead of runner-up Ohio State’s 161 — and the most by an NCAA champion since Penn State’s 191 in 2010. The 25-point margin was also the largest in the last 20 years.

Out on the foil strip, Kiefer rapidly pieced together the context clues.

“There were flags waving around,” Kiefer said. “Everyone was hugging each other, some people were crying — it was beautiful.”

Kiefer wasn’t finished, though.

In the foil title bout, Keifer scored four of the first five touches against Ohio State’s Alanna Goldie to build a lead she never relinquished. The NCAA champion in 2012, 2013 and 2014 reclaimed her crown with a 15-9 victory after taking a year off to train, qualify and compete for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro last summer.

Kiefer became just the third collegiate fencer to win four NCAA championships, joining NYU’s Michael Lofton (sabre, 1984-1987) and Penn State’s Olga Kalinovskaya (foil, 1993-1996).

“It’s been one of the best weeks of my life,” Kiefer said.

“History was made,” Irish head coach Gia Kvaratskhelia said of Kiefer. “It’s special, it’s very special. We have a superstar of monumental proportion. We can compare (her) to any others in their craft — the (Michael) Jordans or anyone — and it will not be unfair to tell you that she’s that level.”

Kiefer was not the only Irish woman to receive individual hardware. Junior sabre Francesca Russo, from Wayne, N.J., claimed her second individual title in a bout that came down to the final touch against Penn State’s Teodora Kakhiani.

As the pair approached each other, tied 14-14 in a race capped at 15, Russo lost her footing slightly.

“I’ve been trying to watch the last point,” Russo said. “I think I slipped, but then I just kind of hit her out of nowhere. I don’t know what happened.

“The individual part is just the sweet ending.”

“Two out of three NCAA (championships), also incredible,” Kvaratskhelia said of Russo. “She’s pretty close to following Lee’s footsteps. … They’re the ultimate competitors with an incredible sense of work ethic every single day.”

After the men’s side of the competition concluded Friday, the Irish were already in front by eight over the Buckeyes — with arguably Notre Dame’s stronger half still to fence.

“The key was no one out of 12 underperformed,” Kvaratskhelia said. “Everyone performed pretty much to their highest potential.”

Notre Dame finishers (preliminary records, used for team score)

Women’s Foil: 1. Lee Kiefer (20-3), 5. Sabrina Massialas (19-4); Women’s Epee: T3. Amanda Sirico (20-3), 14. Madeline Antekeier (10-13); Women’s Sabre: 1. Francesca Russo (20-3), 15. Tara Hassett (11-12)

Men’s Foil: 6. Kristjan Archer (15-8), 8. Axel Kiefer (15-8); Men’s Epee: T3. Ariel Simmons (15-8), 13. Dylan French (12-11); Men’s Sabre: 5. Jonah Shainberg (15-8), 8. Jonathan Fitzgerald (14-9).

Team Standings

1. Notre Dame, 186; 2 Ohio State, 161; 3. Columbia, 152; 4. Princeton, 145; 5. Harvard, 124.

Notre Dame's Lee Kiefer, left, won the foil title at the NCAA Women's Fencing Championship Sunday in Indianapolis. She became one of three fencers ever to win four NCAA titles. (Photo provided)