As a grade schooler, Katharine Holmes was fascinated with tales of Middle Ages derring-do.
“When I was nine, I loved reading books about medieval times and I wanted to be a knight,” said Holmes, a native of Washington D.C.
Acting out those fantasies, Holmes took up fencing. “I fenced along; I was quite terrible at it but I loved it,” said Holmes, who started the sport with the Chevy Chase Fencing Club. “I liked being alone out there on the strip, it was very appealing.”
Holmes got the hang of the sport as an epee specialist and began making a name for herself in regional competitions. “I started doing OK and I decided this is what I wanted to do,” said Holmes.
By the time she was a teenager, Holmes started doing some big things on the world stage. “I went to Cadet World Cup in Germany and then went to Austria,” said Holmes.
“I was awed by the scale of it; I didn’t know what was going on. I went to U-17 World Cup in Belfast and came in second; everything happened so fast.”
Joining the Princeton University women’s fencing team in 2011, Holmes quickly established herself as one of the top epeeists in the country, placing third in the NCAAs as a freshman and then taking fifth this winter and earning All-Ivy honors both seasons.
Next week, Holmes will be testing her skills on the international stage as she competes for the U.S. in the World Fencing Championships in Budapest Hungary, which runs from August 5-12.
In order to book her place to Budapest, Holmes had to perform a balancing act this year as she traveled to national and international events to earn enough points to make the U.S. squad while still competing for Princeton and keeping up with her pre-med class load.
“I had good preparation from my high school days. I am used to it and what it is like to miss a lot of school and make it up,” said Holmes.
“I took organic chemistry and I was only in class for 2 of the 8 exams. I took some on the road or when I came back or before I left. Time management is key. The plane flights are lengthy; they can be eight hours long so that is a good time to work. I have gotten used to it; when I am not fencing, I am working.”
It didn’t take Holmes much time to make an impact on college fencing as she was a first-team All-Ivy League performer as a freshman and then went to take third in the epee at the NCAA championships.
“Fencing is a small world, I knew the fencers on the other teams,” said the 5’10 Holmes.
“It is not the fencing that I had to get used to; it was the format. The Ivy League is a 5-touch format. The NCAA is a million 5-touch matches. The Ivy is like pool competition at international matches. The NCAAs was a grind, you have to be in good shape and keep going. It is a test physically and mentally. Doing well in the Ivies gave me confidence going into the NCAAs.”
While Holmes didn’t do quite as well individually for Princeton as she underwent the grind necessitated by seeking a place in the U.S. senior national team, she was thrilled to help the Tigers win the NCAA combined team title.
“That was an incredible feeling,” asserted Holmes. “We had won before the last round but Susie [Scanlan] and I didn’t know it. We were fencing against St. John’s and going at it, thinking that Notre Dame had won. I talked to Zoltan and he told me we already won. We were going crazy.”
In order to clinch a spot on the national team, Holmes had to go crazy in a World Cup meet in Rio de Janeiro in late May.
“I remember landing in Rio thinking I would know whether I made it when I took off to leave,” said Holmes, who took 30th to gain the necessary points to be in the top four in the U.S. in epee.
“I did pretty well in the first round. I got into round 32; I was going against a 2012 Olympian from China and I was down 10-6; I stopped thinking about making the team, my exams popped into my mind and all of a sudden I won 15-12.”
Looking to show that her spot on the national team was no fluke, Holmes placed second in the epee at the Pan American Championships in mid-June in a key tune-up for the world championships.
“I went in with the attitude that I wanted to prove myself and show that I wasn’t the little kid that didn’t belong there,” said Holmes.
“I won against girls from Amanda Simeao, Joanne Guy, and Cleia Guilhon to get to the final round. In the final I went against arguably our best epeeist [Courtney Hurley] and I didn’t want to let her kill me. I was down 14-11 and I got it to 14-14 before she made the winning touch.”
In preparing for the worlds, Holmes will be training hard to show that she belongs with the best in her sport.
“I am going to get to work with Zoltan [Princeton fencing head coach Zoltan Dudas] at the Princeton camp and some other girls are coming in,” said Holmes.
“When I leave the U.S., I am going to Budapest for a camp there and I will be fencing a lot there. Zoltan is running the camp with the Hungarian team and some other internationals.”
Holmes is hoping for a deep run at the competition. “My goal would be to make the top 32,” said Holmes.
“There are two ways to make it out of first round, one is to be in the top 16 and you jump into the top 64 automatically. You can also fence your way in. I have to take it bout by bout and point by point. I have to compartmentalize things.”
Having former Princeton teammate and close friend Eliza Stone ’13 on hand in Budapest as a member of the U.S. saber team is a good thing for Holmes.
“I am really glad Eliza and I are both going,” said Holmes, who will also be joined at the worlds by two other Tiger alums, women’s epeeist May Lawrence ’02 and men’s epee performer Soren Thompson ’05.
“It will be good to have her cheering me. She reads me so well. We hang out all the time; we have become best friends. She works harder than any fencer I have ever seen.”
Holmes is hoping that her hard work will ultimately land her a return trip to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Rio is definitely a goal; I am going to finish my junior year and take two years off to train and qualify,” said Holmes. “I am going in with the goal of getting a medal; I want to be a contender.”