Lee Kiefer made history on Sunday in Tokyo becoming the first-ever American man or woman to win individual foil gold at the Olympic Games.
The three-time Olympian triumphed in the women’s foil final with a 15-13 victory over defending champion Inna Deriglazova of the Russian Olympic Committee team. After landing the final point, Kiefer, 27, took off her mask and yelled, “Oh my god!” while celebrating the monumental moment. But that’s not all Kiefer has to celebrate. The world-class athlete will soon graduate med school to become a doctor—a reminder that so many Olympic athletes maintain full-time jobs and live a second life in addition to competing on a global stage.
The medal has been many years in the making for Kiefer, who placed fifth at the 2012 London Games and finished 10th at the 2016 Rio Games. A four-time NCAA champion while at Notre Dame, Kiefer’s best performance on the Olympic stage came together while balancing the demands of her third year of medical school at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s such an incredible feeling that I share with my coach, I share with my husband, with my family, just everyone that’s been a part of this,” Kiefer told ESPN while wearing her gold medal. “I wish I could chop it up in little pieces and distribute it to everyone I love.”
Kiefer considered retiring from the sport after the 2016 season, but when she reached number one in the world during her senior year and received support from advisors at UK Med School, she decided to continue fencing while pursuing her goal of becoming a doctor.
As Kiefer shared in an interview with USA Fencing, navigating both demanding pursuits hasn’t been easy, especially with the pandemic raging last year. She and her husband, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Gerek Meinhardt, built a fencing strip in her parents’ basement when their training club closed. After completing seven months of her third year of medical school—which involved 6:45 a.m. starts at the hospital, studying late at night, plus attending class lectures and fencing practice when time allowed—Kiefer took a leave of absence to focus on preparing for Tokyo. All of the effort came to a stunning finale and clearly paid off.
“I think it came down to having a really good support system,” she told USA Fencing. “Obviously my husband, my family, and my teammates—the people who I’ve worked up to this Olympics with. I think the fact that we all shared this journey and this goal motivated me to make the final push.”
Kiefer is just one example of several athletes who often balance school, day jobs, and parenting while chasing their Olympic dreams. For example, while representing Colombia at the 2016 Olympics, rugby star Nathalie Marchino worked as a sales account manager at Twitter and took a five-month leave of absence to prepare for Rio. When she’s not racing on the track for Team Canada, Lanni Marchant works as a criminal defense attorney for a law firm in the United States. Marchant finished 25th in the 10,000 meters and 24th in the marathon at the Rio Games. And three-time Olympian Ana Rente balances her career as a doctor while training on the trampoline.
Kiefer’s gold medal brings the U.S. total medal count to 10 as of Sunday. The U.S. is second only to China, who currently leads the medal count with 11 total.