The Earth Fed Elite squad is taking on THE ENTIRE WORLD this summer! This article outlines the story of Olympic Fencer Kat Holmes and her journey to the pinnacle of STEM and her sport. Stay tuned for the stories behind our other Earth Fed Olympians!
Until the age of thirteen, I had been pretty sure that my calling was to be a taste-tester for Ben and Jerry’s. Apparently, you got to eat ice cream all day and you got to do it with a golden spoon because gold is inert and thus does not affect how the ice cream tastes. Dream job. At that age, I had been fencing for about four years and was starting to get pretty serious. I slowly dropped all my other activities one by one and was soon practicing five days a week and competing on the national circuit, knowing that I one day wanted to go to the Olympics. The golden spoon and the epee were then competing for my attention, but I found ways to successfully juggle both of them.
It was also at thirteen that I had my first serious injury: I sprained my ankle during a competition, tearing several ligaments. The father of one of my close friends from school was an orthopedic surgeon, so I made an appointment to see him. At the time, I was taking Human Science in school and, thus inspired, I peppered him with questions throughout my visit. I expressed so much interest at that initial visit that the doctor invited me to come shadow him in the clinic and the operating room whenever I had the time. The first morning I shadowed him, the doctor had a seven-hour scoliosis correction surgery and, upon stepping into the operating room, I knew that I had found my long-term calling. Out with the golden spoon and in with the bone saw: I was going to be an orthopedic surgeon.
For the last 15 years, I have thus been balancing both the bone saw and the epee. While working towards my goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, I have also worked towards my goals of becoming and Olympian, a World Champion, and, hopefully this summer (!), an Olympic Champion. For college, I knew I wanted a school that had top notch fencing as well as top notch academics that would launch me towards both of my goals simultaneously. I chose Princeton University, a school renowned for its fencing team and phenomenal coach as well as its academic prowess. Princeton thus gave me the opportunity to pursue both of my dreams. First as a student-athlete and now as both a volunteer assistant coach for the fencing team and a research assistant in the Dettwiler Concussion Lab at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, it has been my home base for the past decade as I have been living out my dream of being a professional fencer as well as working towards my dream of being an orthopedic surgeon.
Although being a professional athlete and working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine (STEM) at the same time has been exceedingly challenging, these two seemingly opposing worlds of my life compliment each other in surprising ways. For example, STEM, like sports, is often thought of as a male dominated world. Fencing, however, is one of the few sports where men and women train together, though we compete separately. Growing up, there were very few women fencers in my hometown so I practiced manly against men. At a young age, I thus learned how hard it could be for a woman to be accepted, let alone respected, by groups that are predominantly male.
I trained mostly with men who were at least six inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than me. As a young woman, the men did not want to fence me because they did not deem me strong or good enough. I worked extra hard so that I could beat them. However, when I did beat them, they did not want to fence me any more because they lost to a woman and they found that embarrassing. If I started winning, they would start running at me, trying to physically beat me with speed and strength. This made me perfect my technique and timing so that I could overcome the pure physical differences, eventually turning what at first seemed like a no-win situation into wins in competitions.
Fencing has given me the confidence to apply this same mentality to the world of STEM and, given that the field of orthopedics is 94% male, I believe it has prepared me well for this aspect of my dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. With enough hard work and dedication, anything is possible.
After deferring for a year because of the pandemic and the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, I will be starting medical school next year at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City. Looking back down the path that has brought me to this point, I realize that it is the intertwining power of my two dreams that has got me where I am today. Having two such powerful forces pushing me forward in my life has enabled me to reach higher and achieve more than I ever thought possible. I am sure this next chapter in my life will have its own set of unique difficulties but, given what I have struggled through and conquered in the past, I am looking forward to this new slate of challenges. I will continue my delicate dance with both bone saw and epee, of course fueled, as always, by the EFM protein powder scoop.