Olympic champ proud half-Pinoy

Joaquin Henson - The Philippine Star

TOKYO – It took fencer Lee Oropilla Kiefer a third Olympic appearance in individual foil to finally bag a medal, striking gold here last Sunday to become the first American ever to top the event. She was fifth in 2012 and 10th in 2016 but wouldn’t be denied her place on the podium in her third Olympic stint.

Kiefer, 27, is half-Filipina. Her mother Teresa, a psychiatrist, was born in Tagum, Davao del Norte and migrated to the US when she was 12 with her parents and brother. Her father Steven, a neurosurgeon, was fencing captain at Duke University. Kiefer’s sister Alexandra, 31, was an NCAA fencing champion at Harvard and brother Axel, 25, a fencer at Notre Dame. Kiefer married American Gerek Meinhardt, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in team foil, in 2019. She is a four-time NCAA and 11-time Pan-American champion and won a gold in team foil at the 2018 World Championships.

Kiefer isn’t the only half-Filipina to strike gold in the Olympics. At the 1948 London Summer Games, Vicky Manalo Draves won two gold medals in springboard and platform diving. Draves’ father Theodore Manalo was a musician from Orani, Bataan and married an English migrant Gertrude Taylor while on tour with a traveling band in San Francisco. She was already married to her coach Lyle Draves during the London Games. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who is 1/4 Filipina, was another Olympic standout with a collection of 12 medals, including three gold, from 2004 to 2012.

Although Kiefer represents the US, her aunt Janice Bacani Carandang said she’s proud of her Filipino roots. Carandang lives in Davao City and is a first cousin of Kiefer’s mother. Carandang said Kiefer was in the Philippines only once when she was 10. “Her grandfather got sick in the US and was brought back to Davao for medical care,” related Carandang. “Lee and the family came over to visit him. In 2012, my cousin Martz Angeles Coleman went to London to cheer for Lee. At the Olympic Village, Lee toured Martz and they came upon a message board where you could post good luck messages for athletes. Martz wrote a note for Lee who asked to post it on the spot where the Philippines was on the world map so people would know she’s also Filipina.” A recent USA Today report said one of Kiefer’s favorite foods is lumpia.

“Lee’s very driven,” said Carandang. “She didn’t medal in her first two Olympics but never lost hope. She took a leave from her studies as a junior in medical school at the University of Kentucky to prepare for Tokyo.”

Philippine Fencing Association president and Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez said the late Cito Dayrit, former POC president and a fencer himself, invited Kiefer to join the Philippine pool when she was 15. “Cito met her Filipina mother and we wanted to get Lee for the national team long ago but she was committed to the US,” said Gomez. “We’re very happy for her Olympic success.” Gomez said if Kiefer is a dual citizen with a Filipino passport, he will inquire from the international federation about the possibility of her representing the Philippines in the SEA and Asian Games.

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