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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Kat Holmes

04/20/2021, 8:15pm CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

Kat Holmes anchored the U.S. Women's Epee Team during its gold medal run at the 2018 Senior Worlds. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam.

As the countdown continues to the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, USA Fencing is sitting down with members of Team USA to share the stories behind their Road to Tokyo.

Kat Holmes (Washington, D.C. / New York Athletic Club / Princeton) qualified for her first U.S. Olympic Fencing Team in Rio after taking an Olympic redshirt from Princeton to train for the Games. In 2018, she moved into the role of anchor for the U.S. Women's Epee Team and led the squad to its first ever gold medal at the Senior World Championships. When the Games were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Holmes made the decision to defer her acceptance into medical school for a year at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai to focus on training to win gold in Tokyo with Team USA. Last month, Holmes qualified for her second Olympic Team with a top-64 finish at the Kazan World Cup. 

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Holmes talks about her transition to becoming an anchor, the U.S. Women's Epee Team's shift from knowing to believing they can win gold, why she feels "getting swole" has benefitted her fencing and what eating nine meals a day while training under the watchful eye of a judgmental cat in a pandemic actually looks like. 

1. What was that moment like when you won your table of 64 bout in Kazan and knew you’d qualified for Tokyo?

Honestly, I screamed, yelled and was very excited and then the ref was very angry that I screamed and yelled and then I kind of almost choked trying to swallowing it back. So, apart from the almost blacking out for a hot second, there’s nothing like qualifying for the Olympic Games. It was very different than 2016 where I was there with my friends and [Coach] Zoltan [Dudas] was there and I was able to really celebrate in the moment. This felt like more of a personal survival victory. I’ve never hiked the Appalachian Trail, but I’ve heard stories of people just collapsing because they can’t really believe it’s done. I didn’t collapse, but it was that same feeling of feeling that weight … qualification was two years long … having that weight that had been on my shoulders for two years … it felt like I was taking my first breath in two years.

2. What was it like returning to competition?

I’ve always loved competing. I’ve really thrived on the adrenaline in that environment, but, before the pandemic, I wasn’t entirely sure about my feelings about continuing fencing for another quad. But then having been forcibly away from it for so long … I remember when I was in Kazan I realized that I’m not ready for this to be my last World Cup. I realized how much I missed it, both the actual competing and the excitement and feeling that I’m really in my element. I’m going to start med school in the fall and I’m not sure what that’s going to entail, but you get kind of burned out in competitions during Olympic qualification because they mean so much and there’s so many of them. But I just realized how much I loved competing and how much I missed it and how much I don’t want to stop.

3. What do you love most about fencing?

When I get asked this question, I have two points of reference I pull from. One is Chariots of Fire … there’s two Olympic runners in the early 1900s and one of them is a very conservative Christian and he’s supposed to run on the Sabbath and his family is not ok with this … and he’s walking with his sister and he says ‘God made me for a purpose and he also made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure and that’s really how I feel when I’m fencing. I feel like I’m at my most me and what I’m made to do when I’m fencing. In a less religious context, it’s the concept of resonance in physics where everything has a certain frequency at which it vibrates, like when you see a tuning fork strike a wine glass and it explodes. I feel like when I’m fencing, I’m vibrating at my resonance frequency. I’m just doing exactly what I was made to do. I don’t think there’s one component of the sport that’s what I love most about fencing, but it’s just that I feel so right when I’m doing it.

4. A lot of people may not know that you came from a really small club, Chevy Chase, outside of DC. Did your coaches even back then know you were going to be great?

When asked now, they say yes [Laughs]. My coaches were married, Ray and Jean Finkleman, and Jean says to people ‘I liked giving Kat lessons because she wasn’t afraid and she would just go out there and try to hit and that’s what a good fencer needs to do.’

I thank them for giving me such a love of the sport and cherishing that and pulling it out of me. I have a very weird fencing style, everybody says it, but what Ray and Jean did is they saw that I had a natural style and didn’t try and change it and just worked with it. … And still we talk regularly. They call me their adoptive child. Not during the pandemic, but normally when I’m home we still hang out and they’re part of the family.

5. We always say fencing is a lifetime sport. Do you think you’ll fence forever, obviously not an an Olympic level …

People always ask ‘Who’s your fencing role model?’ and it’s Valerie Asher who’s a veteran fencer. When I first met Valerie, she had ovarian cancer and she wasn’t fencing, but nine months later, she finished chemo and I was 13 and she kicked my butt. At the time, I thought I was this little hot shot in the Washington, D.C. area and it was like “oh, this lady who just had cancer beat me?’ But Valerie is beyond a friend now and is part of my family. And, to a large extent, I feel like the vets are like my people and they just get me.

But fencing is such a part of my life in every aspect that I do think I’ll continue to fence for the remainder of my life and definitely be involved in USA Fencing. Especially this past year, I’ve gotten involved a lot in the governance of the sport and I definitely see that continuing on for a long time.

6. How has the last year been for you?

I think, as for everybody, it’s been challenging. I had several deaths in my family and several family members got sick, but are luckily on the road to recovery. And it’s been an interpersonally very challenging year. And it’s been a struggle to train. Basically, we got back from Budapest last March and everything was closed. Until last month, I hadn’t been in my lab at Princeton in a year. I have a day calendar on my desk and it was stuck on March 11 of 2020. That was the last day I was in my lab and then when I came back everything was closed down.

I was taking lessons in Zoltan’s basement just to get fencing in, but everybody was really willing to support me. Princeton let me take weights from their weight room so I could use them during the pandemic. I had a fencing friend lend me their squat rack. Fencing clubs let me fencing at their locales as much as I wanted for free so people really helped me. And it was hard at times to find motivation. We knew we were training for the Olympics in a year, but we didn’t know when the next competition was, so it kind of felt like at times I was training into a vacuum, but what I kept coming back to is that I made the decision to train and defer medical school for a year and given isn’t the verb any of us would use, but I’ve been given this extra year to be better by Tokyo 2021. I can be better in Tokyo 2021 than I would have been in Tokyo 2020. I can be stronger. I can be faster. I can be fitter. I can work on my technical skills. I think that was my motivation was that I didn’t want to lose that extra time that I’m choosing to view as time that I’ve been given to be better.

And then on another note, it’s given me more time with my boyfriend, Tyler – time that, until we’re retired, I don’t think we’re ever going to get this much time together. Honestly, that’s what kept me sane during the pandemic. Getting to spend all day every day with him, as sickening as it sounds, was pretty awesome.

7. We’ve seen the Instagram posts with your cat, Trainer Tiger, watching your workouts … What did you do to keep in shape during the last year?

I have a gym that I built in my living room. I have a squat rack, a bench and a bunch of dumbbells. Tyler’s a climber, so we have a bunch of climbing equipment which amounts to lots of pullup and fingerhold situations. I put up a TRX. I was running up and down my block and I have an at home exercise bike that I’m pretty sure has no brake left if I want to turn up the resistance [Laughs]. I can pretty much do anything in my gym now so that was a big part of it. And Trainer Tiger always judging, nothing is ever good enough, always really demanding perfection even though I’ll never reach it. He sets a bar very high that I’m continually trying to reach as he glowers down from his ceiling high cat castle in the living room.

And then I was taking lessons in Zoltan’s basement. I wasn’t able to fence at Princeton until February, so I was driving an hour to Medeo or taking the train into the city and really just trying to get my bouts in wherever I could and trying to keep my training as similar as possible to pre-pandemic.

8. I know we’ve discussed in the past that ‘Swole is the goal …’ How did you become interested in lifting?

I never really lifted before Rio and I thought that if I was going to do one thing differently before Tokyo, I’d start lifting and that’s one part of my game that I could really add. And that year when I went back to school I was a senior and Princeton got a strength coach for the fencing team for the first time. And I lifted that year and was getting into it, really liked it and was seeing some benefits. But then that strength coach ended up transitioning to a different program and we hired this guy, Matt Fleekop, who’s my current coach and we just clicked from Day 1. I didn’t touch a barbell with him for my first year. It was all bodyweight and dumbbell work and teaching me to be more than just a fencer, but to be a well-rounded athlete.

People talk about getting a runner’s high. I still get a lifter’s high. I still feel so good after lifting and the benefits to my fencing have been amazing. And people ask why I do it, but I feel like I’m reasonably one of the at least five physically strongest women’s epeeists out there and it helps me on the strip as part of my game to use to my advantage. And then it also gives me something outside of fencing to work towards. For years I wanted to bench 135 and I hit that last summer. But it gives me something else to shoot for and I love it.

9. If you were to give advice to somebody who’s intimidated by weightlifting, how would you suggest they get started?

I would say start with functional fitness. You don’t need to go ham with big weights, just learn to control your body’s basic movements and learn to get really familiar with your body – pushups, assisted pullups, things like that. I feel like a lot of strength coaches when they meet fencers ask ‘What fencing-specific muscles do we need strengthen?’ One of the best things about Matt is ‘Oh, for fencing, you need this muscle. You just need to be strong and making sure your whole body is strong and fit.’ And yeah, since fencing is so unilateral, we spend a little extra time thinking we want to make sure we compensate for that. So if we do a unilateral lift, I always start with my left side before it fatigues. But I’d say just focus on functional fitness and learning how your body works and slowly strengthening.

10. You got into med school last year, but you also knew the day the postponed the Olympics that you were deferring. How did you make that decision?

It was a great one day when I got into med school last year and thought I’d be starting in 2020 [Laughs]. Ok, it was like a week. I found out in Budapest and then the next week they were like ‘No more Olympics.’ ... I know what it takes to make an Olympic Team and what it takes to travel and we weren’t sure if we were going to have a full World Cup season starting in October. And I’ve never been to med school before, but I’ve heard it’s pretty hard [Laughs]. But I’ve gone to college and I didn’t mess with trying to mess with trying to make an Olympic Team when I was a senior in college because I had these two things that were worth undivided attention. I didn’t want to make it basically all the way through Olympic qualification to blow it at the end because I was trying not to fail out of med school and, by that same token, I’d already deferred med school for 53 years and I didn’t want to sacrifice my first year of med school is because I was chasing the end of Olympic qualification.

One thing my mom said to me is ‘I’ve been at my law firm for, let’s say 20 years. Do you think it would make a difference if I was there for 17 years?’ You have the rest of your life to be a doctor. You can’t turn around when you’re 50 or 60 and try to win Olympic gold. That’s always resonated with me. I’m going to be mad old when I’m in med school, but I’m never going to get the chance to do what I’m doing right now again, so I might as well do it right.  

11. You’ve talked about what a great impact Princeton had on you, both as an athlete and now that you’ve stayed to train there and are working in the lab while you’re training as well. Can you tell me about what Princeton has meant to you?

Princeton gave me a phenomenal education for sure. Academically speaking, it’s prepared me for med school and prepared me for the world. But I think the best education I got from Princeton was from the fencing team. My best friends were forged there. That’s where Zoltan, my coach, I chose to stay at Princeton because we work so well together. At this point I’ve seen 10 different iterations of the fencing team, but it’s really been like a family, like a bedrock for me. Whomever’s on the team at the time, they’re that consistent group, day in and day out, are my training partners who are like ‘You can do this.’ When Eliza [Stone] and I made the team, they got us this cake and card and played music and it was just super fun and it was a completely different group of people that did the exact same thing when I qualified for Rio. And five years apart, but that they just love and support everybody on the team and it’s been a Launchpad for everything I’ve done.

Winning the World Championships in Wuxi, I don’t think anything could ever compare to it, but still when asked what my best fencing moment is, it’s when we won Ivies my senior year. We beat Columbia. We were tied, 13-13, and I clinched that 14th bout and having the men’s and women’s teams around me and Zoltan there too, winning it for all those people not just who had fenced on the strip those days, but all those people I’d fenced with for so many years just felt so incredible. And just having that body of people behind me has given me more than I ever could have asked or gotten anywhere else.

12. You had that moment in 2013 and then by 2017 you’d gone from being on the National Team to being in the anchor role. What was that experience like?

Honestly, there was flashbacks to when I just got destroyed in that role at Junior World Championships in 2013. I remember after that bout, it was Zoltan and all of the national coaches from all of the squads were there and they all sat there in a café afterwards and told me that it was ok and that I shouldn’t worry about it because I’d never have to anchor again and nobody would ever put me in that position again. And then five years later, because I had been decimated in 2013, I was like ‘This can never happen again.’ And I think part of me when I stepped on the strip for that first anchor bout, I think I was like ‘We know what not to do.’ But because I’d spent five years thinking about how to improve and really there was no place else to go but up. And then when I won that first bout against Germany, it felt like a relief. Barring that 2013 disaster, I feel like one of my strongest characteristics is my mental game and I think I slid pretty well into that role.

13. What kind of personality type do you think is the anchor personality type?

There’s two different personality types and one is Courtney [Hurley] and one is me. And I think that’s one of the reasons our team is so fire is because we have those two personality types. Courtney, when she gets going, is a total Kraken. When she smells blood, it’s over for the opponent. It’s just game over. She’s on the hunt and nothing can stop her. I would say I’m not a Kraken. But I think when I anchor, they talk about being in a state of flow, but I enter this alternative mindspace where I’m just so totally focused on ‘I need to score a touch.’ I can’t really tell what the score is, what the time is, how far ahead or behind we are. When I was fencing Korea for gold in Wuxi, I couldn’t have told you how many points we were behind. I knew we were behind, but I knew I just had to score. I remember when I tied it and there were like two seconds left, I was surprised that I had tied it. So I think that ability to focus on just the fencing and exclude everything else also makes me a really strong anchor.

14. When the women's epee team won gold at the 2018 Worlds, you became known in Wuxi for overtime wins. What’s that moment like when it’s just you and the opponent and one minute?

I wrote my senior thesis on this at Princeton. In Rio, I lost in overtime to Erika Kirpu and every touch I scored, I scored attacking and every touch she scored when I was defending. So going into overtime, I was like ‘I should probably attack’ and then I didn’t and I lost and I was like ‘I should have attacked.’ So I basically wrote a computational model to predict what the optimal action is in overtime in fencing and it turns out you should attack. So, when I’m in an overtime situation, I clearly have scientific data backing up what the action is that I want to work towards. In that year we won World Championships, we beat Russia in overtime to win the World Cup in Dubai. We beat Cuba in overtime to win Pan Ams. We beat Estonia in overtime in the eight and then Korea in overtime to win the whole thing. And just having that plan and knowing what to do really calms me and I just focus on my trip and where I want it to land.

15. Going into Tokyo, what are your goals?

We want to win gold in team. Before Rio, we all knew that we could win a medal if the stars aligned and if we fenced well, but we didn’t really say it outloud. We were like ‘Yeah, we’d like to win a medal, maybe.’ But there’s a difference between knowing and believing. And, whereas we kind of knew we could do it before, now we really believe that we can. And we’ve really seen an evolution in our team over the last five years. We’re like a squad now and we have a group chat where we talk every day. Who we became as people and who we became as a team … the amount of trust we have in each other now, when I think about it, blows my mind. When we qualified as individuals in Kazan … even the way we talked about it wasn’t ‘Oh, I qualified,’ and even when we posted on Instagram, it wasn’t ‘I qualified for the Olympic Games,’ all four of us separately posted that WE qualified and that’s how we’re going into this Games is that we’re a team and we want gold and we’re not afraid to say I and we’re going to get it together.’

16. When did you start to feel that transition of knowing you could win gold?

When everything started to click for us and we made the final in Dubai and it was like ‘Oh my God, what is this insanity?’ and it didn’t feel real and I remember when I won in overtime, I was literally in shock afterwards and there’s this picture of everybody else dancing around and I’m just sitting in shock. I couldn’t comprehend it. It can be really hard to smash through that glass ceiling initially, because that’s when you begin to believe and that’s really hard. Because you can know, but knowing and believing are so similar, but so different and making that transition is very abrupt.

So at World Championships, we really believed that we could win and that we really belonged there and carrying that with us into Tokyo will serve us very well.

17. What was your favorite memory in Rio?

I have two. One of them is super bittersweet and the other is just sweet. When we lost to Romania by one touch to make the medal rounds, obviously, that was horribly depressing, but we were sitting in the box and I remember there was this moment where Courtney and Kelley and I were like ‘We’re going to win gold in Tokyo.’ And, honestly, when we fenced Romania in the past, we lost like 45-20. It was not even a contest. But we’d put in such dedicated work towards that match with Romania and seeing it come to fruition, I think that was the beginning of the transition from knowing to believing. And that moment where we were committed to Tokyo and committed to winning gold. Losing is never a favorite moment, but it was a really crystalizing moment.

And then the other moment was in the Sao Paulo Airport when I was saying goodbye to Courtney and Kelley [Hurley] and they grabbed me and said ‘You’re like a third Hurley’ and I was like ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way.’ And my whole Olympic experience, we really became a team throughout that whole process and I really think it’s starting to bear its fruits now.

18. I remember before Rio that you once told me that you taught yourself to eat bananas even though you didn’t like them because Olympians eat bananas. Do you still eat them?

I do, but only with peanut butter because it makes them more palatable and also because I love peanut butter.

19. Besides bananas, what does a day in the diet of Kat Holmes look like?

It’s going to be a sad day when I’m not training for like eight hours because I eat like nine meals a day [Laughs]. I try to aim for like 3,000 calories a day with 200-250 grams of protein and then fill in the rest with carbohydrates and fat. Breakfast, I aim for 500-600 calories with either proatmeal where I mix protein powder with oatmeal or maybe like a breakfast sandwich. Then I lift and then I have a protein shake and I do some conditioning and then I have a big bowl of cereal. Then I do a lesson and footwork and then I have lunch, try aim for 500-600 calories, but mainly protein, veg, fish. Afternoon snack numero uno is carbs and protein, so maybe turkey on a rice cake or something. Second afternoon snack is banana with peanut butter and then while I’m fencing there’s Nuun carbohydrate powder that I throw into my water bottles. After I fence, there’s a protein shaker I fill with cereal so I can get some carbohydrates in 30 minutes post workout, then I come home and have dinner, again like 500-600 calories, like protein-veg-rice. Normally I have a little dessert, like a cookie or some ice cream.

20. What kind of cereal?

We have so much cereal. We have 17 different types of cereal right now because I eat like three bowls a day, but my favorite right now is Special K. I have like four kinds.

21. What are your guilty food pleasures?

Still Ben & Jerry’s. Hasn’t changed. Been that way for years. Milk and cookies is still my favorite flavor, closely followed by The Tonight Dough. And then I like to mix it up with some others, but I can easily tank like three pints in a night [Laughs].

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