When it comes to U.S. women’s fencing, the road to Rio travels through South Bend, Indiana.
Four of the eight women representing the United States in the 2016 Olympics have Notre Dame ties, and the coach of the U.S. women’s foil team will join the Fighting Irish coaching staff after the games.
Notre Dame alumna Mariel Zagunis was the 2005 NCAA runner-up and the 2006 NCAA National Champion en route to being named Notre Dame’s Athlete of the Decade in 2010. Currently ranked third in the world, she will participate in her fourth Olympics in the saber on Aug. 8.
Zagunis took home the individual gold in the 2004 and 2008 games and won a bronze in the 2008 team competition. Her gold in 2004 was the first medal for a U.S. fencer in 100 years, and America’s first-ever gold in women’s fencing. The addition of 19 world championship medals make Zagunis the most decorated fencer in U.S. history. She was inducted into the the International Fencing Federation Hall of Fame in 2013.
As the daughter of two U.S. Olympic rowers in the 1976 Montreal Games, Zagunis has a well-established Olympic pedigree but her introduction to fencing came at an early age, thanks to another family member.
"My older brother wanted to sword fight. So my mom signed him up first for classes in our area at a local club, and then I just followed in his path. It was just fun. It was so different than anything I had ever done and it was something I looked forward to every day," she told the Chicago Tribune.
Current Notre Dame student Lee Kiefer also has family ties to thank for her start in fencing. Kiefer’s father, Steven, is a former captain of the Duke fencing team, and his continued interest in the sport after college helped motivate his daughters. One moment in particular at a local fencing tournament in Kentucky awakened Lee Kiefer and her older sister, former Harvard fencer Alex Kiefer, to the possibilities of the sport.
"Toward the end of the tournament, a 14-year-old girl just took me apart, and I think that stood out in the minds of my daughters like, 'Hey, I'd like a piece of that action.' The kids were intrigued," Steve Kiefer told NBC News.
Lee Kiefer’s weapon of choice is the foil, which she has used to devastating effect. She is the only athlete in the history of the Pan American Championships to win seven consecutive titles, and this will be her second Olympic appearance, having placed fifth individually in the 2012 London Games — not bad for a woman who is just 22 years old.
In order to prepare for the Rio Games, Lee Kiefer took a year off from collegiate competition at Notre Dame, where her younger brother, Axel, is on the men’s fencing team. Her boyfriend, fellow Notre Dame foiler Gerek Meinhardt, is participating in his third Olympics at just 26 years old, having been the youngest-ever U.S. Olympic fencer and the youngest member of the U.S. contingent in the 2008 Games in Beijing. And if that weren’t enough, Anthony "Buckie" Leach, Lee Kiefer’s coach with the U.S. women’s foil team, will join the Fighting Irish as foil coach after the Olympics.
Family and the Fighting Irish are at the center of the Americans' best hopes in epee competition as well.
By the end of the first full day of events on Saturday, the U.S. women hope a Notre Dame alumna — either 28-year-old Kelly Hurley or her 25-year-old sister Courtney — will secure the first individual medal for a U.S. Olympian in women’s epee competition. The sisters shared a bronze medal in the 2012 games in London, and Kelly Hurley qualified individually for the 2008 Beijing games as an epeeist.
The sisters' hopes are high, though they keep perspective on their intra-family rivalry.
"The way our family works, we call ourselves Team Hurley, mom and dad and Courtney and I, it’s a win for Team Hurley. We don’t look at it as me trying to prove I’m better than Courtney, that’s not the way we were raised," Kelly Hurley told NBC Chicago.
Olympic fencing competition is fought in three separate categories: epee, foil and saber, each of which differs in rules and style in addition to weapon.
With a maximum weight of just 500 grams, saber competition is built for speed, with each point lasting just a few seconds. Saber scoring targets the entire body above the waist, and touches with both the blade and point are permitted.
The foil is also relatively light, again just 500 grams maximum. As opposed to the saber, only touches from the tip of the foil score points, and competitors aim for a larger target area that includes the torso — from the shoulders to the groin in front, and to the waist in the back. Touches to the arms, legs, neck or head are not permitted.
Like the foil, the epee is also a thrusting weapon, so only touches with the point are legal. However, foils are heavier and somewhat more rigid, with a 775 gram maximum, and scoring touches can be made anywhere on the body.
In women’s individual foil, Columbia’s Nzingha Prescod will join Lee Kiefer in her second Olympics, also having competed in the 2012 Games, where the U.S. team took sixth place. Prescod placed 22nd individually in London, and her 2013 win in Marseilles made her the first American woman to win a Grand Prix title.
Zagunis' sabre teammate, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a three-time All-American from Duke, will make history as the first American to wear a hijab in Olympic competition. Muhammad, who in her free time launched Louella, a line of modest clothing for women, sees her athletic pursuits as a chance to inspire Muslim girls.
"I've been in this sport for a pretty long time — at this point I feel like I've kind of created a name for myself. If anything, I think the wonderful thing is that now these young kids, they see Muslim women involved in sports. So it's not an anomaly anymore," Muhammad said at a Team USA media event in March.
Dagmara Wozniak of St. John’s will compete in the saber competition, and epeeist Katharine Holmes of Princeton rounds out the U.S. women’s Rio roster.