Kamali Thompson Won’t Let COVID Steal Her Olympic Dreams Again

Kamali Thompso

Kamali Thompson got into fencing by chance. The No. 4 ranked female saber fencer in the country was pushed to pivot from dance to fencing by her prescient mother who saw fencing as her daughter’s ticket to college. Mom was on to something. Kamali, who was recruited by Temple University for fencing, and her brother Khalil both hold the No. 4 ranking for fencing in the United States.

But Kamali, who hopes to make the Olympic Team for the Tokyo 2021 Games, has also been training for excellence in an entirely different arena. Thompson just finished her fourth year of medical school at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The future orthopedic surgeon begins her residency the same week as the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

While Thompson is aware that training for the Olympics while in medical school is “unprecedented”, she’s juggling the stress with the kind of precision and focus she’s learned from fencing. All this while attempting to train during the COVID-19 crisis, which postponed her Olympic dreams by a year and made it nearly impossible to train.

Meet Kamali Thompson: doctor, aspiring Olympian, the role model everyone needs.

An Accidental Start

“When I started fencing I had absolutely no idea what fencing was.  I saw The Parent Trap like everyone’s seen. I was starting high school. I was a dancer and I was excited to be a dancer in high school. That was my plan.

I was at an open house and we walked past the auditorium and there was a fencing demonstration. My mom stopped in her tracks and said, ‘Oh what’s going on in there?’  We went inside and I’m tapping my foot telling my mom to get out of there, but she got in a conversation with the high school coach who said fencing would be good for my college application. That was all my mom needed to hear.  Next thing you know it’s November of that year and I’m at my first fencing practice.”

Champions Need A Champion

“My mom had the foresight to think fencing would be good for my college application. Neither of us were thinking about the Olympics until I got to my fencing club a few years later and everyone was a national champion or an Olympian. You need people to plant seeds in your head to make you realize what you can achieve.” 

Kamali Thompson Finds Her Place

“When I decided in high school I wanted to get good at fencing my coach, who was also African American, told me to go to a fencing club in New York city called the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Peter Westbrook was a six-time Olympian from New Jersey, half-Black, half-Japanese.  He decided that he wanted to make a fencing club in New York City for underrepresented minorities, most of whom were lower socio-economic status, and teach them about fencing. 

I got to this club and it’s all Black people. They’re all from Harlem and Brooklyn, some from New Jersey. Everyone was so cool looking. Many of them were amazing students, some were getting MBA’s, students from Columbia, or going to Wharton.  Joining that club and seeing people who looked like me, and seeing what people who were less fortunate than me could achieve, definitely helped me find my place in fencing. “

The Best Laid Plans

“I’m a fourth year medical student. That entails finishing rotations, applying for residency and doing my electives.

Last year I put school off for a year so I could train for the Olympics, hopefully make the Olympic Team, and go straight to my fourth year in school, my residency, and call it a day.  That was my plan.  And then Covid happened, and the Olympics were postponed, and I had to figure out how to train while going to my rotations. “

Prescription For Success

“I was sixth for the Rio Games in 2016 and I realized that I had all the pieces of the puzzle except confidence. So for the last four years, I’ve really been working on that.  I’m going to go into orthopedic surgery and there are approximately 100 African American orthopedic surgeons in the country. It’s very small. It’s mostly a white male profession.  So for me, as a Black woman going into that realm and being a surgeon, it’s really important for me to be confident.”

Summer Plans

“Residency starts for everyone on July 1 and the Olympics are July 23rd. I’m not sure how it’s going to work, but I’ve spoken to most programs and they’ve said they can make sure I can be away for that time. But basically two days after the Olympics, I’ll be starting residency.”

Going For Gold Is Personal

“I was a shy introverted dancer who picked up fencing on a whim and decided to see how far I could go with it. I wasn’t a varsity athlete on a path. I happened on fencing by accident.  To be on the National Team while in medical school has superseded expectations. So to make it to the Olympics, when no one even thought it was possible, is amazing.

And my brother is five years younger. He started fencing and we’re both ranked No. 4 in the country right now. We’re both close to making the Olympic team. To go to the Olympics with my sibling would be amazing.”

Advice For Young Girls & Their Parents

“To parents, don’t be afraid to do something out of your comfort zone.  Parents want their kids to do what’s comfortable for them, but don’t be afraid to try something new. Don’t go with the grain because everyone is doing it.

For kids, it’s difficult to do something different. When I started fencing, family and friends were like, ‘This is so weird.’ Now they’re all supportive.  When you get good everyone will be supportive. If you like something, stick with it.”

Follow Kamali Thompson, here.

Follow the Peter Westbrook Foundation, here.

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