Kamali Thompson doesn’t have time to hit the snooze button when her alarm goes off at 5 a.m.
A fourth-year medical student at Rutgers and a world-class fencer, she’s training simultaneously to be an orthopedic surgeon and a 2020 Olympian. So Thompson is at the hospital by 6 a.m. for a full day of work and research, followed by four hours of fencing. Sleep comes around 11 p.m., and the cycle repeats.
And those are normal days. When she travels to competitions, her schedule can be so hectic — and time changes so jarring — that she recalls having double-vision at a competition in Korea.
“I thought something was wrong with me,” Thompson said. “That was probably the worst it’s ever been. My teammates were like, ‘No, you haven’t gotten any sleep in the last month, you’re exhausted.’”
Thompson, 27, and a native of Teaneck, N.J., competed at Temple University from 2008-2012. She was recruited there despite having only four years of fencing experience. She became a four-time NCAA championship qualifier, a second team All-American, and the first four-time NIWFA conference champion.
And she wasn’t too shabby with her academics, either. She graduated with honors, a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in psychology. She was named Temple’s Student Athlete of the Year in 2011 and 2012.
“I think what stood out to me the most was her desire to improve,” said Nikki Franke, Thompson’s fencing coach at Temple. “She came to us a good fencer, but became an outstanding fencer. In the time she was here, the improvement was quite noticeable, and that was a result of her hard work and ability to balance her academics with her athletics.”
Thompson’s fencing career didn’t have a fairy-tale start. She was a dancer in school, but her mother wanted her to fence because it increased her chances of getting a college scholarship.
At an open house in the eighth grade at Teaneck High School, Thompson was on her way to the dance room. Her mom noticed a fencing demonstration in the cafeteria, so she went inside and talked with the coach, who convinced her that Thompson’s footwork and athleticism from dancing would naturally translate to fencing.
It wasn’t what Thompson wanted to do. She complained to her mother and “gave her a little sass,” she said. Fencers were known for looking nerdy, and Thompson felt like she already had that reputation and wanted to get away from it.
“Fencing just looks so weird, and if you don’t know what’s going on, you’re like ‘What’s happening?’” Thompson said. “I just didn’t understand it, and I wasn’t feeling it at all.”
Her sophomore year of high school, still way before she was “feeling it,” Thompson entered a statewide fencing competition — and finished in ninth place. The top eight finishers got big trophies, so Thompson was determined to keep getting better.
Her coach advised her to join the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a fencers club that was created by the former U.S champion and Olympic medalist. Westbrook wanted to give minorities an opportunity to pursue fencing and learn about the sport. Thompson joined her junior year, and the rest was history.
Now, Thompson is completely focused on Olympic training. The top four women and top four men fencers nationwide are selected for the Olympic team. In 2016, she finished sixth, a second-alternate.
This round, Thompson is competing in 12 qualifying events leading up to the 2020 Olympics, taking place in Tunisia, Russia, Greece, the United States, and other countries. She is currently in third and projected to make it to Tokyo. She decided to hold off on her final six months of medical school until after the Olympics.
“That was just unrealistic for me to think I could be gone for two weeks every month in a different time zone, come back, and finish whatever schoolwork I have to do,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s brother, Khalil, is also a fencer training for the Olympics. He is currently in third and in position to qualify. This would create a unique moment: Not only would they be two siblings competing in the Olympics, but both are African Americans, which is a rarity in fencing.
“I never thought it would happen,” Kamali Thompson said. “It’s really special because we have a lot of competitions that we go to together. I look around and see all the other fencers by themselves, but me and my brother, we go together.”
Thompson’s reputation as a medical student has gained traction in the fencing world. She is nicknamed “the doctor” by other fencers.
The fellow fencers admire the budding doctor’s work ethic and are amazed by how she balances it all. She gets asked about being a doctor at every competition. It’s just another reminder that no one else is doing this.
“I’ve seen her studying while waiting right before a competition or after,” Khalil Thompson said. “It’s insane. She was studying for an exam in medical school once and she got like second place the next day.”
Thompson has five competitions remaining to qualify. She’ll learn if she makes the Olympic team in April after a competition in Korea. Her plan is to switch gears after the Olympics and focus on finishing her last six months of medical school, starting in August.
Yes, that’s a quick turnaround. The Olympics will end on Aug. 9, but no one should expect Thompson to take a break. That word might not exist in her vocabulary. The quick shift just fits right into the teeth of her frantic schedule.
Her brother said he marvels at her ability to stay organized and plan her life six months in advance. But talk to Kamali Thompson, and she might reveal plans well beyond that:
“In four years, I hope to say I’m an Olympian, an Olympic medalist, and I hope to say that I’m in one of the top orthopedic surgeon programs.”