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After 18-Year Career, Former National Champion Kamali Thompson Announces Her Retirement

03/28/2022, 10:45am CDT
By Bryan Wendell

The 14-time national medalist and 2016 Division I National Champion has announced her retirement from the sport.

Kamali Thompson smiles after a bout. Photo by #BizziTeam

Kamali Thompson stands with her saber and mask.

Courtesy of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Kamali Thompson, a 14-time national medalist, 2016 Division I National Champion and 2019 National Team member, has announced her retirement after 18 years in the sport.

Thompson, a saber athlete whom Sports Illustrated once dubbed “a modern-day Superwoman,” shared the news in an Instagram post on March 24. 

“I learned so much from this sport. I learned so much from everyone I met,” Thompson wrote. “Coaches, teammates, referees, friends, everyone had something to teach.”

Thompson tells USA Fencing that she is stepping away from the sport to commit to her orthopedic surgery residency full time.

“Fencing requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice, which I’ve always been happy to do,” she says. “Medicine also requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. I’ve never been one to give less than 100%, and now I need to dedicate all my time to becoming a great surgeon.”

Striving toward greatness has defined Thompson’s entire fencing career — a career that, to the surprise of some of her peers, didn’t begin until her freshman year at Teaneck High School in New Jersey. She joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit fencing organization in New York City, in 2006.

“In many sports, not just fencing, most kids start at a young age,” Thompson says. “Kids and parents are led to believe if you aren’t a superstar by your teenage years, you can only reach a certain point. I want people to know that’s not true. As cliché as it sounds, if you want something, go for it!”

Like if you want to be a member of the U.S. National Team while still juggling the rigors of medical school? Go for it. 

“Simply put, I always made time for it,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to run to the train after med school lectures to get to practice. Fencing at a high level requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice, and I had no problem making those sacrifices, because I loved it.”

She also found that, rather than detracting from one another or merely coexisting, fencing and med school blended beautifully.

“Fencing taught me how to be creative and handle high-pressure situations,” she says, “When you work with patients, sometimes they present with a textbook problem, and sometimes you have no idea what is happening. You have to stay calm and come up with a plan. It’s very similar to the way you strategize in a bout.”

Thompson encountered her share of high-pressure situations on the strip. Two weeks after missing the team for the 2016 Olympics, Thompson was scheduled to compete at the National Championships. 

“I was distraught after not making the team and couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks,” she says. “I figured I might as well go to Nationals since I had already registered. The next thing I knew, I was in the finals and finally found the confidence to win — the confidence that I had been missing all season. I still think about that day if I am ever doubting myself.”

She also thinks about her strong support system, including her mom (“she planted the seed”); her brother, Khalil, who is also a fencer (“he’s one of my biggest supporters”); her coach Akhnaten “Akhi” Spencer-El (“one of the few people who believed in me from the beginning”); and her boyfriend, Marty Williams (“he’s helped me through all of my obstacles”). 

When she looks back on her career, Thompson can’t help but think all the way back to that very first time she tried the sport.

“Fencing has helped me grow tremendously as a person,” she says. “Year 1, I was a 12-year-old girl with very little self-confidence, very awkward and worried about what other people think. Now I am 30 years old, very confident in my ability to learn, to ask for help, to set goals and to execute them. I owe that all to fencing.”

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