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An American medical student from a fencing family wins a historic gold medal

Lee Kiefer will take a gold medal home to Kentucky. (Mohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

For Lee Kiefer, who became the first U.S. man or woman to win a gold medal in individual foil Sunday in the Tokyo Olympics, fencing and medicine run deep.

The daughter of two doctors, Kiefer, 27, is a medical student herself, studying at the University of Kentucky. She is married to Gerek Meinhardt, a 30-year-old fellow Kentucky medical student who is her partner in life, medicine and fencing. In Tokyo, he is competing in his fourth Olympics, having won a team bronze in foil in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“I actually remember pulling out my computer in the middle of the night and watching my now-husband fence in Beijing 2008 [when I was 14],” she wrote in an NBC Sports questionnaire. “I did not know him at the time nor did I even contemplate being an Olympian one day.”

As she wrapped up a 15-13 victory over Russian Inna Deriglazova, Kiefer was briefly overwhelmed. “What just happened? What just happened?” she repeated in disbelief. Her next question: “Where is my husband?”

Meinhardt, who married Kiefer in September, was there cheering her on as she won gold.

“I was here at the venue all day with her,’’ Meinhardt said according to USA Today. “I was doing everything I could to help her out and keep her focused.”

Said Kiefer: “Basically, it felt like he was out there fencing with me.”

Kiefer is the first U.S. woman to win gold in individual foil, and she won only the third fencing gold by an American woman; Mariel Zagunis won the individual sabre events at the 2004 and 2008 Games.

Fencing took Kiefer to two previous Olympics and to becoming the first U.S. female foil fencer to earn the No. 1 world ranking in 2017. Her interest in the sport began when she was 6 and saw her neurosurgeon father, who had been captain of the fencing team at Duke, resume competing.

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“My siblings and I thought the sport was strange and interesting-appearing, so my dad started teaching us the basics in our empty dining room and taking us to a club twice a week that was 1.5 hours away from where we lived,” 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.”

When she was unable to visit her club because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kiefer and her husband practiced on a fencing strip in her parents’ basement, encouraging each other as the months stacked up.

“It started out really exciting, and then after a few months it was like pulling teeth because no one’s in sight,” Kiefer said. “But we kept motivating each other. We held each other accountable, and eventually the world started to open back.”

Kiefer and Meinhardt will return to Kentucky with at least one medal, and an unusual pet will be waiting. That would be a Brazilian salmon pink birdeater tarantula named Caetano she describes as “a beautiful yet low maintenance pet who brings me joy.”

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