Kamali Thompson's Balancing Act

By Kristen Henneman, United States Fencing Association

5 a.m.: Wake up, arrive at the hospital by 6 a.m.

6 - 7 a.m.: Receive updates on patients and what happened overnight

7 - 10 a.m.: See patients and fill in residents (doctors).

10 a.m. - 12 p.m.: Lecture

12 - 1 p.m.: Lunch

1 - 4 p.m.: Admit new patients and check on patients. As opportunities arise, go with one of the doctors into the O.R. (operating room) and do spinal taps, procedures, etc.

4 p.m.: Go home

5 p.m.: Board train to take to the Peter Westbrook Foundation

6 - 9 p.m.: Fencing practice

9 p.m.: Run from practice to the train station and grab dinner; eat dinner on the train home

10: p.m.: Arrive home

This is an average day in the busy life of 25-year-old Kamali Thompson. Training at the highest level in any sport can be a time-consuming undertaking, but Thompson juggles fencing with another full-time job: student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

With a schedule that includes a rigorous medical program and training at least five days a week, the Teaneck, N.J. native has fencing practice with the Peter Westbrook Foundation Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The remaining two weekdays, Thompson goes to the gym to stay in shape and, time-willing, heads to a local club in New Jersey for extra practice.

“You have to be very organized and I plan my schedule for the month when it starts, including what days I’m going to practice and what time specifically, and if I’m going to another club, what days I’m going to that at the very beginning of the month because if I don’t, studying-wise, I get back bombed and then I’ll want to stay home for a day and I won’t want to go to practice,” said Thompson, who will look to defend her Division I women’s saber national championship this weekend in Baltimore, Md.

Thompson is currently in her third year of medical school, which requires participating in six to eight week rotations at the hospital on various areas of medicine. Currently, she is working in pediatrics, but Thompson has her eyes set on becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember, but I used to want to be a pediatrician,” Thompson said. “Then when I got to med school, I found out that sports medicine was a field, so I decided I wanted to go into primary care sports medicine. One of my first rotations this year was surgery, and then I found out that orthopedic surgeons are basically the sports medicine surgeons, so I decided to be an orthopedic surgeon.”

Thompson’s future career path stems from her experiences as a fencer and she believes her ability to relate to athletes will give her a better ability to help others.

“At the beginning of the last quad, I broke my thumb. The doctors I dealt with, they were sports medicine doctors, but they didn’t work with high-level athletes, so just the way they acted and the treatment, they weren’t really good,” Thompson said. “Part of the reason I decided to go into sports medicine is because I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to understand the severity of an injury much better because I’m an athlete than somebody off the street who just really likes sports.’ So that’s why I decided to go into sports medicine originally. If I didn’t fence, maybe I would still be a pediatrician because I wouldn’t have thought sports medicine would’ve appealed to me at all.”

Scheduled to graduate in May of 2018, Thompson will postpone beginning her residency and work in research in orthopedic surgery instead, allowing her to focus on her fencing career in the years leading up to the Olympic Games in 2020.

“I’ll be doing research in New York; hopefully and that should make everything a lot easier,” Thompson said. “I won’t have a long train commute anymore, so I’ll be able to balance work and fencing a lot better. Fencing is definitely going to become more important on my priority list.”

Ranked in the top six in the U.S. in women’s saber last year, Thompson’s road to Tokyo continues on Sunday at the Division I National Championships, where she won her first individual national title a year ago.

“The last thing on my mind is my last result, so I don’t remember things like I won Nationals until people remind me or people say something,” said Thompson, whose current goal is to make the 2018 Senior World Championship Team. “So for me, I’ve been working on a lot this year, in terms of improving my skillset as a fencer. My goal, obviously, would be to win Nationals, but it’s really just to incorporate everything that I’ve been working on and to preform, especially under high pressure where people are expecting me to win. If I can pull that off, I’ll be really happy.”

Unlike many of her competitors, Thompson didn’t grow up fencing, something she considers to be an advantage because it’s kept her fresh and in love with the sport.

A dancer from an early age, Thompson didn’t start fencing until high school after she saw a demonstration as an eighth grader at her high school. Hoping her dance background might help with the footwork, Thompson joined the team.

“I didn’t really like fencing at all when I first started,” Thompson said. “My very first year I was so angry because I was still in dance and I really wanted to be in this really popular dance group, but it was also during the winter, so I was really angry at my mom for making me do it.”

As she stuck with the sport, Thompson found her competitive edge, which gave her the desire to get better and see where fencing could take her.

“I never thought I was athletic. I was always described as graceful because I did ballet, but I was never into sports, so fencing was the first time I did a sport and I showed any type of athleticism,” Thompson said. “So, the fact that I was picking it up pretty quickly, I really liked that and I think it just kind of intrigued me at that point and I just wanted to go with that.”

With the will to improve, Thompson joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation and, despite having less experience than many of her opponents, was recruited to fence at Temple University.

“My experience at Temple was amazing. Coach Franke is probably the reason why I’m still fencing now,” Thompson said. “It’s amazing to me because when I was a senior (in high school), I didn’t understand that everyone had been fencing since they were 10 years old, so my first [North American Cup] was the same NAC that everyone else in my class was getting recruited at, so I didn’t even understand what recruiting meant because I had just started fencing.”

In her time as an Owl, Thompson found her stride, becoming the first four-time National Intercollegiate Women's Fencing Association Champion and a four-time NCAA Championship qualifier. A second team All-American in 2012 as a senior, Thompson currently holds the record for the most career wins on the women’s saber team (175) and the most wins in a season (55 in 2010-11).

Academically, Thompson became the first student to earn the Temple University Student Athlete of the Year Award twice (2011, 2012).

Celebrating her 2016 Division I National Championship Victory

Celebrating her 2016 Division I National Championship Victory

“Looking back, the fact that [Coach Franke] saw me fence one bout in my first competition and then said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll talk to that girl about coming to Temple’ and she accepted me onto the team and not only that, but she started me in the first meets we had,” Thompson said. “I think that made such a big difference in terms of her believing how well I could do and how much better I could get and that pushed me to want to get better because I didn’t want to let her down. Just the fact that she took a really big risk in me showed me that maybe I should keep fencing, maybe there’s something that she sees that I don’t see yet.”

While Thompson has learned to walk the line between her two passions in her schedule, she has also found ways that fencing and the medical field not only have similarities, but have skills that lend to each other.

For one, knowing that she can handle the complexity and difficulty of medical school has given her confidence on the strip and shown her that with hard work she can achieve her goals. Similarly, when it comes to medical school, Thompson believes her fencing career has given her a leg up with her doctors as it helps create more personal relationships.

“This year, I’ve had at least one World Cup every rotation, so I’ve had to go to them before the rotation starts and tell them I’m going to be gone two or three days because I’m at a World Cup in Korea or something like that,” Thompson said. “So I actually have a really close relationship with the top doctors in each rotation because they think that it’s really cool I’m still fencing and they think that it’s really cool that I’m going to all these places. It helps me stand out.”

In addition, the quick decision-making and thought process needed for fencing has helped in her medical career and helped Thompson overcome her tendency to overthink.

“Because my brain will be running a million times an hour and then when I’m studying, or even diagnosing something, it’s very simple. What’s happening with this person? What is probably causing it?” Thompson said. “Because you’re studying so much and you have so many options, it’s really difficult for students to break things down. But fencing is very simple -- what’s happening, what’s the most likely reason and what am I going to do to fix it?”

Once again, Thompson has found the right balance.