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Fencing coach with Tampa roots says student has good shot at Olympic medal

Damien Lehfeldt is the fencing coach for modern pentathlete Suzanne Stettinius, who will compete at the Olympics this weekend. He’s still a competitive fencer, a fact that she liked. 
Published Aug. 9, 2012

TAMPA

Few, if any, Olympic dreams begin on a bar stool. But for a former Tampa resident, a relationship and subsequent trip to London were forged over barley and hops.

"We decided it over a beer," Damien Lehfeldt said. "Suzanne (Stettinius) asked me to work with her, and considering the caliber of athlete she is, I readily agreed."

Lehfeldt will be in Stettinius' corner when she competes in the modern pentathlon Saturday at the Olympics. Lehfeldt, who was raised in Tampa, is Stettinius' fencing coach.

"She is very determined, very resilient," Lehfeldt said. "So many people dream of making it to the Olympics, and now she's here. I am so proud of her."

• • •

The modern pentathlon, a sport that lists Jesse Owens and George S. Patton as Olympic competitors, consists of five events: fencing, 200-meter freestyle swimming, horse jumping and a 3-kilometer cross-country run that includes stops to shoot pistols at targets. The grueling events all take place in one day.

"You have to be such an amazing athlete to do this type of thing, and it speaks to the type of shape she is in," Lehfeldt said. "She's worked her tail off."

Lehfeldt, who has competed internationally in fencing, moved to the Washington, D.C., area two years ago from Tampa. He has continued to fence as well as coach and said he misses his former home.

"I'm a big Tampa fan," he said. "Eventually, I definitely want to get back there."

Lehfeldt and Stettinius met a little over a year ago while the two were competing in a Baltimore fencing tournament. They became friends and Lehfeldt, who once honed his skills at the Tampa Fencing Academy, agreed to be part of the team that will, with luck, land Stettinius a gold medal.

"I started working with Damien only about a year ago," Stettinius said. "I told him about some issues I was having and he stepped up to help me out."

One of the things that drew Stettinius to Lehfeldt was that he was still a competitive fencer, rather than someone who got into coaching after a career.

"I like having a coach that still is a competitive fencer," said Stettinius, 24. "He understands more why I get (irritated) at times, and he is great at helping me pull myself together."

Stettinius also said their friendship allows Lehfeldt to be more frank with her.

"Because he is my friend, is why he can do that," she said. "I respect it more from him when he pulls me aside and tells me, 'Let it go.' "

Lehfeldt's teaching style has also been a benefit.

"He has been great with working on my timing and really getting me to focus on learning the rhythm of my opponent and knowing when to make my move or go in for the kill," she said.

• • •

Stettinius, who had to overcome a broken back, broken collarbone and hamstring tear before qualifying for the Olympics, thinks a Top 10 finish is a "good prediction," while a medal spot is possible "with an awesome day."

"I hope to keep fighting throughout the whole day, even if one event does not go as planned," she said. "I made it here and I want to leave knowing I gave it everything."

Lehfeldt is more confident in his student's chances to end up on the medal stand.

"If she's 100 percent physically, and she is right now, Suzanne has a rock-solid chance of medaling," he said.

And what better way to tie a bow on this Olympic journey than with a celebratory drink Sunday in London?

"It will be nice to bum around London with her and decompress after all this work she has put in," he said. "And I'm sure we'll have a beer."

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