At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Kat Holmes was ready to retire from elite fencing upon her return to the United States. However, when the American team finished fifth at the Games, just one game off the podium, Holmes knew they had business to deal with on the track.
Holmes will shoot in the épée category in the individual and in the team competition at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. She is currently ranked No. 22 in the world, which is the highest rank she has ever held in senior competition. The US team could claim a épée medal after securing a major victory in this event at the 2018 World Championships.
Despite being older and struggling with the limitations of pandemic training, Holmes, 28, is in the best shape of her life. This Olympic cycle, she added a game-changing element to her training program: weightlifting. Fencers typically don’t focus on strength training, but rather technique and agility, but Holmes believes his sheer physical form gives him a competitive edge.
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“One of the first things to decrease when you’re tired is your technique,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “The stronger you are, the longer you can maintain a high level of technique, and frankly, the stronger you are the easier it is to strike the blade beyond your opponent’s hand.”
Holmes has worked with his strength trainer Matt Fleekop since 2017. Fleekop was the strength coach of the fencing team at Princeton University while Holmes competed for the Tigers, and he had never worked with fencers before joining the Princeton staff. He said bodybuilding for fencers requires a unique approach compared to a football or basketball player.
“Kat’s right arm is visibly bigger than the other, and it’s the same with her legs, because she’s so dominant on that side,” Fleekop told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s about figuring out how to fight that and keeping them healthy and strong on both sides while also being aware of the asymmetries in their bodies.”
Fleekop said Holmes’ improvements in weightlifting have been huge over the past three years. He said her maximum bench press when they first started working out was around 70 to 80 pounds, and that she is now able to lift 135 pounds, which is over 75% of her body weight. She can also lift over 300 pounds in her favorite exercise, the trap bar deadlift. Fleekop said the biggest challenge with training Holmes is his constant desire to surpass himself.
“There would be times in Princeton where another team would come in and they would have to end up alone. I would give her five or six sets of something, and she would say, ‘Oh, I did nine or 10 rounds, I’m forgetting,’ ”he said. “Knowing that she kind of wants to get run over, I have to strategically put things like that into her workouts or else she will do it on her own and could get hurt.”
Holmes is based in New York City, so she was unable to access any of her regular training resources when the COVID-19 pandemic first escalated in March 2020 due to a lockdown. Even when she was able to return to her weight training facilities and her fencing club, she was unable to work with Fleekop in person.
In September, Fleekop began new work as a performance coach for Future, an app that allows users to digitally connect with personal trainers to manage individualized workouts. Holmes and Fleekop started using the app, and she said it was a big benefit to her training.
“During the pandemic, I was just lifting alone in my apartment, and it was so boring and so unmotivating,” Holmes said. “[Future] is super interactive, as if they were there. There are few voice recordings from your coach that cheer you on and they have a heart rate monitoring system via Apple Watch that really allowed me to biometrically track my heart rate and tailor my training to that. I have noticed huge gains from it.
The app continued to help Holmes train despite the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. She said that since fencing is primarily an individual sport, the resources provided by the national governing body are mainly centralized at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., But most fencers are not at the center. more than a few weeks a year. Thanks to Future, Holmes was able to take her strength trainer with her in her daily training sessions and when she travels abroad with the national team.
Holmes will kick off his competition roster in Tokyo with an opener against Sera Song of South Korea on July 24. Fleekop said Holmes’ strength gave him a mental boost as much as physically, and he hopes he sees that reflected in his performance.
“She’s in such incredible physical shape that she knows that when she’s out there against someone they can’t survive her and they’re not as strong as she is,” he said. “She is convinced that no one is where she is, and it shows. She couldn’t have trained harder or done anything more, so I just want her to do her thing and feel good about the way she competes.
Holmes is aiming for Olympic gold, particularly in the team competition. Even though she was on the verge of retirement five years ago, she said that today even a gold medal might not satisfy her desire to continue her journey in the sport. She will begin her medical studies at Icahn Medical School on Mount Sinai three days after returning from Tokyo, but Holmes believes she can balance the next phase of her studies while continuing to shoot internationally.
“When I was competing in our last Olympic qualification, our only international competition this season, in Russia, there was that moment where I was like, ‘I’m not ready to stop this,'” she said. . “I still see room to grow and room to be better. There are only three years left until the next Games, and the first two years of medical school are a bit like college. Looks like it’s just around the corner and a lot more accessible.
The two-time Olympian describes himself as a “big nerd” and got into fencing as a child after reading books about medieval times that featured sword fights. She feels a spiritual and physical connection to the sport which she believes keeps her training at such a high level and keeps coming back for more.
“There is a quote from the movie Chariots of Fire … it says: ‘God created me for a purpose but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure’, and that is how I feel when I shoot, “said Holmes.” To put it in a more scientific perspective, you’ve seen instances where you hit a tuning fork and a wineglass vibrates and explodes. Everything in the world has a frequency of resonance, a frequency that it vibrates like that. When I do fencing, I feel like I’m vibrating at my resonant frequency.