“My voice is kind of gone,” Meinhardt said. “Not from yelling in this bout, because I didn’t score that much. It was from cheering her on yesterday.”
Meinhardt entered Makuhari Messe Hall B on Monday as the top seed in the Olympic men’s foil individual tournament. Ranked second in the world, he carried vivid expectations, at his fourth Games, of winning his first individual Olympic medal. In his opening match, Meinhardt lost, 15-11, to Vladislav Mylnikov, a Russian ranked 124th in the world. Even accounting for the volatility inherent in fencing results, Meinhardt had suffered a stunning upset.
And yet, Meinhardt could explain afterward how his Olympic dream had come true. The night before, his wife, Lee Kiefer, had become the first American to win an individual gold medal in the foil. Meinhardt had suffered a stinging defeat in one of the biggest tournaments of his life. The joy in Kiefer’s victory eclipsed the disappointment in his own loss.
Meinhardt and Kiefer do most everything together. They train together. They travel to tournaments together. They study medicine at the University of Kentucky together. When the pandemic shut down facilities, they practiced together on a strip in the basement of her parents’ house. For six months, they fenced only each other.
“I’m always honored when Gerek goes out on the strip and people are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Gerek,’ ” Kiefer said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I built that.’ It’s kind of my flex move.”
Meinhardt and Kiefer do not believe in individual achievements. All their losses and victories are collective. “Even in Rio, when he had his team bronze, I was like, ‘That’s my medal,’ ” Kiefer said.
Meinhardt supported and cajoled Kiefer through the bracket Sunday night, offering advice and encouragement. Kiefer felt as though he was on the strip fencing next to her. On Monday, Kiefer hollered from the stands wearing a T-shirt that read “Team Meinhardt.”
“A lot of our fencing is feeling,” Kiefer said. “In a lot of senses, we’re not as technical as other people. So we kind of give each other words of encouragement to increase our intensity, or help the other person move to get into their flow.”
If Meinhardt had been forced to choose one of them to win a gold medal, he said he would have picked Kiefer. The reason contained more nuance than love. Meinhardt believes Kiefer is an incredible fencer, even better than her No. 5 world ranking.
“Everyone said she fenced amazing yesterday, that she couldn’t miss,” Meinhardt said. “I completely disagreed. I thought that she had this potential. She could have beat people even worse yesterday.”
But Meinhardt had watched major events when Kiefer reached the latter stages and “locked up a little bit,” wracked by nerves. At the Olympics, the biggest stage of all, Meinhardt watched her remain steady and topple Russian Inna Deriglazova, the top-ranked fencer in the world.
“For her to be able to push through all of that and win the Olympic gold, that was my Olympic dream,” Meinhardt said. “It really was.”
Kiefer is typically emotional. “Happy, sad, angry, you name it — I will cry multiple times a week,” she said. But the gold medal surprised her so much that she didn’t shed a tear.
On Sunday night, Meinhardt joined Kiefer’s teammates in the training room as they threw her up in the air. Meinhardt watched her accept the gold medal and sang along to the national anthem. By the time she finished interviews and a drug test, the clock showed 10:30 p.m. She had a news conference, and he had a bus to catch back to the Olympic Village.
“She was basically pushing me out the door to make sure I got rest for today,” Meinhardt said.
The emotional, hectic night played no role in his loss, Meinhardt insisted. He rarely sleeps the night before big tournaments, anyway. If anything, Kiefer’s performance had inspired him. From the start, though, he felt out of sync. Equipment issues robbed the bout of rhythm. He fell behind early, and every comeback attempt stalled.
“I love watching my husband fence when he’s at his best,” Kiefer said. “It’s my favorite thing in the world. Today, he just wasn’t feeling it. You know, we’re both bummed, but we’re okay. He’s okay.”
“Some days in fencing,” Meinhardt said, “you just can’t feel your tip.”
It was one of those days for the United States in the men’s foil. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Alexander Massialas won silver, which made him the first American man to win an individual fencing medal since 1984. He believed, he said then, it would start a “golden age” for Americans in the event. They entered Monday with three of the tournament’s top seven seeds.
After his first bout, Massialas leaned against a fence behind the stands. Nick Itkin walked past, patted him on the shoulder and asked, “How’d it go?” Massialas shook his head and looked at the ground. Later, Massialas rubbed Meinhardt’s shoulders, then dipped his head and bawled. Meinhardt hugged him.
Five years ago, Massialas had been mobbed by raucous teammates. Now the tournament, so promising at the start, had unraveled. Massialas lost in the first round, too. Making his Olympics debut, Itkin beat Russian Anton Borodachev in the round of 32 — then lost to his twin brother Kirill in the round of 16. (“They do have some differences,” Itkin said, “even though they do look exactly the same.”)
“I’m going to also go back and make sure I’m ready, geared up for the team event,” Massialas said. “Obviously, it hurts right now. I’m heartbroken. But I’m here ultimately to support my team. They need me as an anchor.”
Meinhardt had started to look ahead to the team event, too, but first he had more celebrating to do. It is his 31st birthday Tuesday. He planned to stroll through the Olympic Village with Kiefer and celebrate the medal she had won. Later in the week, he will try to give them another.
“I’m still in position to fight for gold in team,” Meinhardt said. “Gotta go get my own.”