By the sword and the spirit
A lifelong love of fencing helps make another’s Olympic dreams come true.
Damien Lehfeldt has been fascinated with fencing since he was a young boy. A Human Capital analyst in Consulting’s Federal practice, Lehfeldt grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and loved sitting with his grandfather and watching adventure movies like The Three Musketeers and The Adventures of Robin Hood. “It was exciting to see Errol Flynn and other swashbucklers sword fighting on the screen,” says Lehfeldt. “I was 8 years old when I took my first fencing lesson. I loved it immediately and I still do.”
Lehfeldt got his first real exposure to the sport when his best friend’s father took him to a local athletic club that offered fencing lessons. Lehfeldt showed talent with the épée — heavier than the foil or sabre, it is the most commonly used weapon in the modern sport of fencing. He competed in recreational events across the Mid-Atlantic region until his family moved to the Tampa Bay area when he was 12.
He lost touch with the sport for a few years, but then when he was 16 he had an opportunity to train under the tutelage of two internationally renowned coaches at Tampa’s Fencing Academy under Boyko Krastevitch and South Florida Fencing Academy under Mario Jelev. “These coaches taught at a very high level,” says Lehfeldt. “They got me into national competitions and opened the door to my future success as a fencer.”
While competing for the Tampa club, Lehfeldt enjoyed his first significant success in 2005, when he finished in the top 32 at a World Cup event in Louisville that was sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale D’Escrime, the worldwide governing body of amateur fencing. He would later attend Brandeis University from 2005-2009, where he helped his alma mater capture an Intercollegiate Fencing Association championship and two team national championships at events held by the United States Fencing Association (USFA).
To this day you’ll find Lehfeldt representing the DC Fencers Club and the South Florida Fencing Academy in competitions across the country — and still competing at a high level. Since 2008, he has held an “A” rating in both foil and épée by the USFA. He’s also offered his abilities to others as a coach.
Taking time to coach
Working primarily with young fencers, Lehfeldt has coached three national championship semi-finalists, the 2011 junior national bronze medal team, and other winners of local, regional, and national events. He credits his success as an athlete and coach to his focus on the mental aspects of the sport. “Fencing is often called physical chess because you are constantly trying to think one step ahead of your opponent,” says Lehfeldt. “You go into each match with a plan, but you need to be able to change tactics as you go. The ability to remain positive and always believe that you will win the next point is essential for success in this sport.”
Suzanne Stettinius says that it was this mental acuity in matches that first drew her attention to Lehfeldt. Stettinius is an accomplished athlete who competes in the Modern Pentathlon, an event that includes a 200-meter freestyle swim, a three-kilometer run, equestrian jumping, pistol shooting, and fencing — all in one grueling day. Stettinius had watched Lehfeldt from time to time in competitions and the two knew each other casually.
Stettinius burst onto the pentathlon scene in 2005 when she finished fourth in her first international competition. A native of northern Maryland, Stettinius first fenced in 2001 and over the years she has continued to perform well in international competitions.
She set her sights on qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London, overcoming a broken neck and collarbone she suffered in a fall from a horse and a severely pulled hamstring muscle that hampered her ability to effectively train and compete in qualifying events.
One aspect of her training that she recognized was in need of help was the consistency of her fencing. In December 2011 she approached Lehfeldt and asked him if he would consider becoming her coach. “He still competes, which is unusual for coaches,” she says. “He was energetic and extremely confident that he could make me a better fencer. And he said he’d do it for free!”
Not surprisingly, Lehfeldt immediately went to work on the mental aspects of her game and he is proud of the improvements she has made in such a short period of time. “Above all he’s taught me patience, patience, patience,” says Stettinius. “He always forces me to wait for the perfect opportunity to attack. I know my timing is not all it should be, but nobody ever called me out on it as well as Damien does. I enjoy working with him and I am excited to see where my fencing goes from here.”
In fact, it’s going to London. In May, it was announced that Stettinius had earned the right to participate in the Summer Games as the second-ranked pentathlete in the United States and one of 36 women who will compete in the Modern Pentathlon. Lehfeldt will be there too, helping to hone her épée skills until the last moment.
“She’s an amazing athlete and one who has overcome a lot of adversity to earn this spot on the U.S. Olympic team,” says Lehfeldt. “She’s definitely gotten better at reading her opponents during a bout. I believe fencing will be one of the stronger parts of her pentathlon.”