Along with every first- and second-year fencer in New Jersey, Kamali Thompson competed at Freshman, Sophomores in February 2005.
In her first year of the sport, the then-freshman at Teaneck High School watched her teammate finish third at the annual competition.
“She had a great day,” Thompson said. “She fenced really well. Everyone was watching her. She had a huge trophy, and I decided that I wanted to practice enough so I could get that next year.”
A year later, Thompson finished ninth at the event, missing a Top-8 finish by two touches. Following the competition, she found her passion.
“I wanted to keep fencing,” Thompson said. “I wanted to keep going and get better.”
Eleven years later, Thompson—who graduated from Temple in 2012—is competing for a spot in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
To qualify for the Olympics, Thompson must finish in the Top 4 of women’s sabre. Points are earned when a fencer finishes in the Top 64 of international competitions and Top 32 in national competitions.
Thompson is ranked No. 7 after one national and six international tournaments, with one national and two international competitions left before the team is selected.
“She always says she has more to learn,” Thompson’s mother Avis said. “But to see her fence with the best in the world, I can’t put it into words.”
Thompson’s final two international competitions are on Friday in Belgium and March 20 in Seoul, South Korea. Her final national competition is on April 11. The representatives are then selected April 12.
“I feel like I’m finally at the point where I really understand fencing,” she said. “I really understand how to use my athleticism, how to use my intelligence. To make the Olympics would mean I finally figured the sport out.”
While at Temple, Thompson appeared in four consecutive NCAA Fencing Championships and won 50 matches in three of her four years on North Broad.
She also is the winningest sabre fencer in school history with 185 wins.
“We saw a lot of potential,” Temple’s coach Nikki Franke said. “She didn’t have a lot of experience, but she was an outstanding athlete and she had passion for the game.”
When Thompson arrived at Temple in 2008 as a freshman, she joined the team without a scholarship.
With the help of Franke and sabre coach Bradley Baker, Thompson led the sabre squad to a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Regional Championship while being named to the National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association first team during her first season.
“The biggest thing that helped her was gaining experience with strong competition,” Franke said. “All the coaching she received and the schedule we have really helped her understand the game itself. There is a whole mental game that she learned.”
Thompson joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York during the summer of her junior year at Teaneck High School.
Soon after enrolling, Thompson was training four days per week with her coach Akhnaten Spencer-El, a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.
“That was the reason I started taking fencing so seriously,” Thompson said. “The first day I was fencing, Peter Westbrook pulled me to the side and said, ‘I think you are really good and you should come and take group classes.’ … Going four times a week wasn’t good enough if I wanted to be as good as everybody who I was fencing with.”
Thompson—whose brother Khalil is a sophomore sabre at Penn State—was encouraged to fence after Avis Thompson told her it would be a good opportunity to obtain a college education.
During an open house at Teaneck High School in Spring 2004, Thompson—then in eighth grade—and her mother watched a fencing demonstration in the school cafeteria, marking her first time seeing the sport up close.
“I thought it was really different, but not in a good way,” Thompson said. “I was younger than everyone else, and I was already really smart. The last thing I wanted was to make myself more different than the rest of my classmates.”
Michael Guise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.