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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Khalil Thompson

05/18/2021, 5:15pm CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

Khalil Thompson won gold at the May NAC to qualify as the replacement athlete for the U.S. Olympic Men's Saber Team.

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.

Khalil Thompson (Teaneck, N.J. / Peter Westbrook Foundation / Penn State) qualified as the replacement athlete for the U.S. Men’s Saber Team in Tokyo at the May North American Cup – earning gold at the senior level in the final qualifier for Tokyo. In a closely contested three-way race for the final spot on the team, the 24 year old came away with his first senior title. Just five years ago, Thompson wasn’t sure if he would ever fence again after being diagnosed with severe depression and severe anxiety disorder. Although he says that it is something he will deal with for the rest of his life, Thompson went on to qualify for his first Senior National Team in 2019 and has now punched his ticket to Tokyo.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Thompson discusses why it’s important to surround yourself with people who elevate you, why he chose to speak out about mental health and which fencers he’d want to take on in their prime.

1. When you won the semifinal against Grant Williams at the May NAC, you just fell straight down onto the strip. Tell me about that moment when the light went off and you won.

I think in that moment, it was more of an ‘I did it’ moment. I was like ‘Thank God I won the match.’ The whole match I wasn’t thinking about winning, I was thinking about scoring the next touch and I was thinking that in the last three touches I hadn’t scored on a long attack so when I finally did I was like ‘Thank God.’ … When I fell, I legit fell. I had no control over my body at that point. I used all of my energy in that touch and it was just relief. Like ‘Oh, thank God.’ It wasn’t even relief that I won. It was relief that I scored that attack.

2. When you got off the strip, who was the first person you texted?

I texted my best friends. Kamali was on her way, but I was actually going to call her. I didn’t want to have that conversation over text with her. My mom and I have this thing where we don’t talk about my tournaments until I come home so she doesn’t see the results and she just hears about it from my perspective of what happened. So I wasn’t going to tell her until I got home. She asked me not to say anything until I came home because she wanted to hear about myself and Kamali.

So I texted one of my group chats of friends … When I was done, I was just like ‘It’s official. I just qualified for the Olympics’ and everyone flipped out. Then when I got better service and scrolled up, I found out that they knew before I did! I have two group chats of friends and on one of them one of my friends had just graduated from law school the same day. So my friends were already excited and I didn’t even read all of the texts. I just told them I qualified and they’re like ‘Oh my God! This is such a great day!’ So I had one group of friends who already knew I qualified because they were watching the website for results and then watching the live stream. My friends never watch me fence and then my other friends were watching the graduation on the live stream. And then I saw I had like 200 notifications saying congrats.

3. So you technically qualified after the quarter-finals, but your coaches and everyone decided not to tell you that you qualified …

Everyone’s celebrating after I won the semis. They tackled me to the floor and they’re so excited and … then Dary [Homer]’s like ‘You wanna hear something funny? You already qualified the match before.’ In my head, I knew the points were so close that I had to do something big and I had to be the No. 1 finisher and I had to win the tournament. So when he said that, I was like ‘Are you serious?’ and he said ‘Yeah, we didn’t want to tell you because you wouldn’t have fenced the same way.’ I don’t 100% agree with that, but I understand the reasoning.

When I fell to the floor, people were like ‘Oh, he didn’t know he already qualified.’ And the entire time, I’m fencing the match and I was like ‘Why is everybody so calm right now? I’m calm, but you guys should be way more excited that I’m scoring touches right now.’ But I decided I was even going to think about it and I was staying calm, but I was kind of like ‘Really guys?’

4. I know you’re not checking anything between bouts, but just so you know, I posted the announcement that you qualified right when you walked onto the strip for the semis …

Oh that’s good because I did go on my phone at some point because in between matches I play Candy Crush at NACs and at World Cups. The guys will be like ‘Are you serious right now?’ and I’ll be waiting for a very intense match and I’m playing Candy Crush … There’s nothing else I can do while waiting. It would be worse if I just pulled out a book [Laughs]. Like can you imagine waiting to fence a match and you see your opponent pull out a book while everybody else is just jumping around and getting warmed up and you’ve got a guy reading a book … I listen to a lot of music throughout the day, but I’m still playing Candy Crush … I’m on Level 1963. I’m serious about it. Everyone’s like ‘He’s too far gone.’

5. Does your mom really not look at your results at all?

She gets too anxious. She refuses … So a little bit of backstory first. My sister and I started fencing because of [2012 Olympic team bronze medalist] Maya Lawrence’s mom. Since we were young and Kamali joined the high school team where she was the coach and my mom has been friend’s with Maya’s mom. So Maya’s mom is the one who watches and gives my mom updates. So my mom knows that she can go and see all of it, but she elects not to because she just can’t handle the waiting period and getting text updates with scores, so she waits until the day is over. So, by the time I get home, she knows the results, but she waits to get my perspective of the day when I get back.

6. You represent the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Did you start there?

I’ve been in the program since I was nine years old in the fall of 2005 … I started in foil and I was very disinterested in it. The way the room was set up, I was in the beginning foil class and we were next to the advanced saber class and that class was run by Ivan [Lee] and Keeth [Smart]. So my sister was in it and there were people like Dan Bak, Adrian Bak, Marty Williams, Ross Davidson, they were all in that class. While I’m learning how to do a parry-riposte, I’m not even paying attention to what I should be paying attention to. I’m just watching saber fencing and people running up and down the strip and thinking this was the coolest thing ever.

7. When did you switch from foil to saber?

The end of the first year I was there. The class runs from 9-12 p.m. and then the advanced kids have a 30-minute break and then they have their own class from 12:30-2. So every Saturday, I was there from 8:30 to 2:30 or 3 p.m. and I would watch the entire advanced class and I’d be in awe and just so interested and at some point the coach at the time, Mika'il Sankofa, comes up to me and asked if I wanted to be part of the class and fence saber and then never went back to foil.

8. Speaking of the PWF class, I know there’s always been this tradition that the elite athletes work with the kids during the Saturday class. What has that experience been like?

It’s a very rewarding experience because when you’re on a journey to complete a goal or try and make a team, sometimes you forget where you started, so when you’re around the kids, it’s great because you’re around kids who’ve just started the program to when they’re about to graduate high school and see them in different stages of life … It’s actually the most rewarding experience because working with kids teaches you a lot about yourself. It’s really difficult … you have to learn how to explain fencing to somebody and then logically teach it which helps make you a better fencer … you get to deal with different learning styles and personalities. The parents are heartwarming and it’s like being part of a big family.

9. You mentioned earlier the group text with your non-fencing friends … What do they think of you fencing?

I have a friend who’s like ‘Oh my God, you’re in the Greek god tournament.’ He’s like ‘Khalil’s going to the tournament where Lebron, Kobe, Michael Jordan and Simone Biles have been. None of us are going to do this in life.’

But I always say ‘We all have our own thing.’ One of my friends just got promoted to be a regional manager of his company. One of my best friends is graduating from Georgetown Law School. My friend just graduated from physical therapy school. One of my friends just got into med school. We’re all trying to do something.

I’m really close with my friends outside of fencing. We’re all moving in a direction where we all motivate each other to be better and I think that’s something I’ve always learned, especially being with the Foundation. You don’t want to have people close in your circle that don’t motivate you. One of my favorite rappers says ‘If your friends aren’t motivating you, that’s not a circle, it’s a cage.’ We all try to find ways to be better and we all inspire each other. So when I said ‘I’m going to the Olympics,’ everyone in the group was elevated. They’re always proud of me and we’re all now reaching a new part of my lives and that’s one of the most inspiring things.

I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t inspire me to be better. That’s just not a thing for me. I grew up with Kamali, my mother, I’m living with people who inspire me and then at the Foundation I was around Olympians and seeing other people who looked like me and fenced and reached the highest levels of the sport and now most of my friends are trying to go somewhere in life and reach new levels. That’s also inspiring. So I love the fact that most people around me inspire me.

10. There’s a saying that if you look at the five people closest to you that you see what you will become …

My mother always told me that the five people closest to you are a representation of who you are currently. I’m a firm believer that you as a person will attract people with similar energies and personalities, so I try to better myself for the purpose of being better and improving as a person and that just attracts those kind of people.

11. You mentioned the ability to see people who look like you succeeding in fencing. What did that mean to you when you were a kid coming from a program with so many successful Black Olympians?

It was a blessing because, as time went on, you saw more and more Black people doing well in the sport. Seeing it is such a blessing because it’s like ‘If he can do this, I can do this also … It’s like ‘I know this person.’ I know what they’ve gone through. My first time seeing fencing at the Olympics was the 2008 Olympics. I’d been at the Foundation for three years at that point. And it wasn’t just seeing a random person on the screen, it was like ‘Oh, that’s Keeth [Smart]’ and he was someone I’d looked up to since I was a kid. It was really awesome to see that and watch it in real time. Then 2012 comes and it’s Daryl and Nzingha [Prescod] was fencing, Ben [Bratton] was on the senior national team and it didn’t stop. This is a program where you’re in it and there are people around you that will always inspire you to succeed and then it was like ‘I can definitely do this.’ And now it’s that experience where I can say ‘I’m one of the PWF kids who qualified for the Olympics.’

12. You hadn’t competed internationally until your last year as a junior. What changed then?

That summer of 2016, going into Summer Nationals I was 40th on the point list … My family sensed there was something off about me, but I was still fencing. Nobody really knew exactly. I stopped fencing NACs for a few months and I had to get my groove back in terms of how to fence a NAC and then that helped me jump from 40th to 11th and then I just decided to do fence Junior World Cups and try to make the Junior World Team. I wasn’t in school. I didn’t have any other goals so I wanted to have something to work towards in a very chaotic time. I didn’t make the team that year. I finished fifth. I won JOs for the first time and won Junior Pan Ams, so I was pretty proud of who I was.

That same summer, Daryl and I got a little closer and then he came back to the Foundation and he inspired me to sign up for a Senior World Cup and I got destroyed [Laughs]. I didn’t make it out of pools. I only won one match and it was like 5-4. But Daryl encouraged me to try again and so I signed up for Madrid and Moscow and have been on the circuit almost ever since.

13. What was it like being on the circuit with your sister Kamali?

It’s like having your best friend there who you can talk to about anything and I don’t have to think about anything. We just show up and it’s strictly supporting … We’re five years apart. But then when I started traveling to Senior World Cups, we didn’t see each other that much at that point. She went to college when I was in sixth grade and she wasn’t living at home, but it was like ‘we’re going to see each other a lot more’ and we got closer because of that. Eventually it became any time we got frustrated at tournaments we had each other to talk to. I learned a lot from Kamali because, when she didn’t make the 2016 team, she had a lot of insights to talk to me about. The first year of being on the World Cup circuit is the hardest and, to be honest, you spend a lot of time losing. The jump from juniors to seniors is hard. But Kamali really helped me get my mind right for fencing seniors.

14. So after high school, you went to fence at Penn State, but ended up going back to New Jersey after your first year. What happened?

I can only give events. There’s no specific cause. I was under a lot of stress. There was school stress and paying for school stress because I wasn’t on a scholarship. There was a point where I developed crazy anxiety and it would keep me up at night. And, mind you, I’m someone who wakes up early. I couldn’t wake up at all. I’d be up until three in the morning and the not wake up again in until one in the afternoon. Then I wasn’t eating much, but I was training every day for the first time. So my body was going through a transition and I was putting out a lot of energy, but I wasn’t eating enough and then I’m not sleeping. I was always stressed and then I found myself not being able to leave my apartment. It was really difficult. My friends were a little worried about me and I was like ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.’ But I made sure I showed up to practice so that nobody really … I don’t like when people worry about me. I remember that spring semester, I took my final and packed my room in three hours total. I packed everything up. I didn’t even wash clothes. I just put everything in bins and then moved out.

Then at some point that summer I had a bunch of breakdowns and my mom was like ‘You’re not going back to school – which led to more breakdowns. I called my best friend’s dad and I had a really long conversation with him and he said ‘Listen, if my son was going through what you are, I wouldn’t let him go back to school either. Penn State is three hours away in the middle of nowhere and nobody can really get to you. You need to be at home.’ So I decided ‘ok, fine.’ I stayed home which was supposed to be for one semester and I was supposed to go back spring semester and I just never went back.

15. Did you seek help at that point?

That summer, I met with a psychologist to get diagnosed and they diagnosed me with severe depression and severe anxiety disorder. The second half of the summer after Summer Nationals, I spent a lot of time at home. Eventually at one point I didn’t leave my house for a month and I almost quit fencing. Then that summer I saw Daryl medal at the Olympics and that gave me more inspiration to keep fencing. So I was like ‘I can’t run away from something that’s happening in my life right now and I need to deal with it.’

And then Peter [Westbrook] realized that I was still at home in September, so I told him what was happening and he was really helpful in getting me out of that state. He would call me during the day and tell me I needed to go to practice and I wouldn’t want to go, but it made me feel better. Eventually that turned into me going to practice for hours so I would take a lesson in the early afternoon and wait a few hours and then I’d just stay in the club instead of going home. I’d hang out with some friends or sit and do something for a while and go to practice in the evening so I’d spend six or seven hours at the club. Or I’d go to therapy before practice and it would be a tough session and Peter and Akhi [Spencer-El] would ask how I was doing so Wednesday nights would turn into me fencing and talking and it became another form of therapy.

16. I’ve heard people compare dealing with mental health struggles to rehabbing an injury. How did you cope?

I see it as a hurdle you have to get over and it doesn’t happen overnight … I’ve changed as a person. As a human being I’ve changed. I’ve grown and matured and my perspective on life has changed. I think that people need to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. People tell you ‘It’s going to go away eventually’ and I’m like ‘It doesn’t go away. This is something I have to live with for the rest of my life…’ But I also had to force myself to come to terms with what was happening with me and, by me coming to terms with it. It’s something I have to constantly fight with these negative thoughts in my head. They come very easily and it’s a skill I have to learn to actually replace the negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

I think the fact that people are talking about it more, they realize that when you don’t have these conversations, people feel like they’re alone in life and when you feel alone, you can’t handle everything by yourself. No matter what anybody says, you can’t do it by yourself and it’s good to have help. It’s ok to have help. Some people don’t want to ask for help because they’re proud or they don’t know how to … Eventually these thoughts don’t just impact your mental health. At some point they can impact your physical health. Your brain treats your body in a weird way and, for me, I wasn’t eating and I wasn’t sleeping which changes so much. I had to fix how I thought about the world which also helped me improve physically.

17. It’s a very personal decision to talk about some of the struggles you’ve had with mental health. Why did you decide it was important to be open about it, not just with friends and family, but publicly?

The reason I started talking about it is, because, when it turns from ‘I’m going back next semester’ to it keeping being pushed back. I got tired of people asking and I would give these BS answers and felt like I was lying to people. After I won JOs in 2017, I didn’t want to answer why I wasn’t in school anymore, so I just decided to put it out there on social media. And writing it made me feel better and then other people would come to me and tell me what they’re dealing with or other people were dealing with and it made me feel better that people were talking about it. It was more being vulnerable. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s strength in vulnerability and I think at this point that it’s something we need to talk about.

We live in a world now where people can see everything. For me, growing up, my earliest memory of actually seeing brutality against young Black people was Trayvon Martin, but we didn’t see it, we just heard about it because it was only two people. Now you just have a whole generation seeing this in the palm of their hands and you feel really upset when you see these things, but who do you talk about it with? You have to talk about it because otherwise you internalize these feelings and it just changes you and affects you in a very very large way.

18. You said ‘who do you talk bout when things like that happen?’ When everything happened last summer, how did you deal with it? Who did you talk to?

I talked to my friends. We all talked about it. For us, it wasn’t even talking about the actual events and more talking about how we were actually feeling because, at some point, it’s just tiring … It’s tiring being an event that people see and then there’s a moment where they care about it and then they move on. But this is an actual issue. When you see issues about racism, police brutality, sexism, any of these things. It’s important to listen.

My friends we all talked and would ask not if they saw it, but ‘How are you feeling?’ because at some point you get a little numb to it which is an issue. No one should get numb to seeing a person being killed and no one should be numb to seeing another person being mistreated at all in any form. It’s not ok. And if we don’t speak up about it, the issue is going to get bigger and worse.

Five years ago, if you ask me how I was doing, I’d always say ‘Fine.’ And it was a frustrating question because I couldn’t answer it. I didn’t know how I was feeling. I didn’t know how to do it. Eventually, I was also like ‘What is the point of you asking?’ because you can’t help me. But then the barriers come down and then it’s like ‘No, seriously. How are you feeling now? What’s going on with you? Why is your mood the way it is? What are you thinking right now?’ Then when you get to the specific questions, it gets easier to have those conversations.

19. You’re back in school at NJIT now. What are you majoring in and what do you want to do?

I’m a communications and media studies major. Eventually I want to go to law school, but not until I’m done fencing. But after that I want to work in sports business? At first, I was thinking agent, but I’m not sure. I just know sports and business is something I’m interested in. But for now my main focus after I graduate is fencing.

20. If you could fence anybody and the results didn’t matter, who in the world would you fence and why?

Younger me would have said Daryl, but I fence Daryl every day and Eli, but I fence Eli quite often. Let’s see … my first 64 was against [Aron] Szilagyi. I fenced [Sanguk] Oh …

I’d love to fence prime Keeth Smart or prime Ivan Lee. I would have loved to fence those guys. Keeth was the first American to be No. 1 in the world and everyone talks about how good he was and I’ve seen some videos, but not a lot. That guy’s game of fencing was great … I’d love to have fence prime Aldo Montano too – when he won the Olympics. There’s so many people … This is a throwback, but I saw video from the 1996 Olympics and I’d love to fence Damien Touya who won bronze. I have a list of people that I’d love to know what they’d be like and the footwork back then was amazing. You had to have good footwork.

21. When people think of fencing, they think of the individual event, but the team event has such great energy and is amazing to watch. What is it like to compete in team?  

It’s a whole different energy to the sport. Team events are the most unique thing in fencing because you have to change your mindset completely. In individual, it’s all about you and everything is on you. But when you get to a team event, you have people supporting you and you’re doing something that’s bigger than yourself and that’s something you really care about … You need to have specific people in the box. You need to have a specific plan of how you’re fencing. Team events really taught me that you have to know your role. When you have to quell your own ego and know that this is my specific role for the team right now and this is how you have to fence against these people. I can’t do whatever I want …it also helps you change and grow as a person.

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