2020 Olympic profile: ‘Swashbuckling surgeon’ Kat Holmes goes for gold in Tokyo

July 22, 2021

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 27: Jason Pryor and Kat Holmes take part in a fencing demonstration during Team USA's Road to Rio Tour presented by Liberty Mutual on April 27, 2016 in New York City. The event marks 100 days until the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images for USOC)

Kat Holmes, dubbed here as “the Swashbuckling Surgeon” before the 2016 Olympics in Rio, has only done more to earn that moniker in the last five years.

Holmes, 28, narrowly missed out on a medal in fencing — the U.S. Women’s Epee Team lost in overtime to finish fifth in Rio, and Holmes placed 25th in the individual competition. But she made history in 2018 by anchoring Team USA to a gold medal at the Senior World Championships, the first U.S. women’s team to medal.

And — oh, by the way — the National Cathedral School graduate also graduated from Princeton magna cum laude with a degree in neuroscience and technology.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, Holmes then took on the daunting task of applying to medical school while simultaneously trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

“There was a time there when I’d go to a World Cup and I’d fly right back from the World Cup to a med school interview, and then I’d go from a med school interview right to a World Cup,” Holmes told WTOP. “I couldn’t get too stressed about one thing because I was always going on to something else.”

“She likes to work,” Zoltan Dudas, Holmes’ coach at Princeton over the last 10 years, said in 2016. “When you’re tired and exhausted, she’s still able to focus in those moments, and she knows it isn’t always fun.”

The overlap wasn’t supposed to happen. Holmes was accepted into the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in March 2020, but deferred medical school for a year while training for the Olympics.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, she had considered retiring from fencing, but the delay of the Summer Games into 2021 actually helped her continue fencing competitively.

“I’m not saying, ‘Yes 100%, I’m 100% committed,’ but I’m very committed to trying to making both work still,” Holmes said.

How the pandemic changed the game

Holmes said her training routine changed 11 times during the pandemic. She and her team were in Hungary when it hit, and she said they barely made it back to the U.S. before the travel ban went into effect.

The restrictions at home also put a damper on training. Holmes said she couldn’t use the gym at Princeton, so she made a makeshift gym at home by creating weights out of Home Depot buckets filled with sand and practiced fencing in Dudas’ basement — which was unexpectedly frustrating.

“As eternally grateful as I am to my coach for loaning out his house, I think a piece of my soul died in that basement,” she said — it was a tight space, and the foam-tile ceilings would catch her sword.

Now, Holmes can practice at a nearby fencing club, and has “a legit gym in my apartment” in New York that includes real weights from her sponsor.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare figuring it all out, but at the end of the day, I got it done,” she said.

Holmes said she’s not concerned about the state of emergency in Japan as the Summer Games begin, citing Japan’s low case rate and stricter measures compared with the United States. She added that the fencing team is isolated on a U.S. military base and tested multiple times every day.

“Quite honestly, I have negative (number of) concerns,” Holmes said.

Medal hopes

As she did in 2016, Holmes is competing in team and individual epee. The attitude, individually and collectively, is much different this time around.

“I think we kinda knew that we could medal in Rio, but now we really believe that we can,” she said. “It’s a subtle dichotomy … but there’s a big difference.”

Holmes’ confidence comes from the team’s win in the world championships in 2018 and its No. 1 world ranking for the 2018-19 season.

“Definitely from a team perspective, we want to win gold this time,” she said. “We’d be happy with a medal of any color, but I don’t think we’ll be truly satisfied unless it’s gold.”

What about a medal in the individual competition?

“Individually, I’ve improved a lot over the last five years,” Holmes said, citing the extra year the pandemic provided her to train. “My goal is always, I wanna win.”

If she does bring home gold, don’t expect the busiest Olympian to take a long victory lap around her old stomping grounds at Chevy Chase Fencing Club.

Holmes starts med school in New York three days after returning from Tokyo.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is a versatile broadcaster with a broad range of experience. He can be heard in in WTOP's traffic center and on the Sports Desk and his byline is on WTOP.com as a web writer/editor and sports columnist.

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