While at Princeton, Soren Thompson '05 managed to balance academics with dominating the fencing world both in the NCAA and on the international stage, making his first Olympic campaign before graduation. In 2004, Thompson became the first American in 48 years to make it to the epee semifinals, defeating the No. 1 ranked fencer in the world along the way. He returned to the Olympics in 2012 after a serious injury prevented him from competing in 2008. Thompson sat down with the Daily Princetonian to discuss balancing competition with academics and the course of his athletic career.
Daily Princetonian:What made you decide to launch your first Olympic campaign? It must have been really difficult to decide to take time off.
Soren Thompson:It was. I deferred a year before I came, so it was my second year off from school. … I was accepted class of ’03 at Princeton and took that year off, and I didn’t do that with the intention of making the 2000 Olympic team because that would’ve been almost impossible with my age and experience. But to go through that process once, that’s why I did it. So it was always in my mind that if I felt I was in striking distance, I would do that again. So I did come here for three years, then took off a year to go for the 2004 Olympic team.
DP:Was it different competing at a collegiate level after you returned from your year off for the 2004 Olympics?
ST:To some extent, all athletes struggle with trying to fit everything in, and the NCAA fencing, while great to do, doesn’t really push forward your international fencing. So for those athletes who are pushing towards an Olympic team or other international teams, some of them think of NCAA’s as being in the way, and more of a hurdle and detriment to their goals than something that supports them and helps them. I had a little bit of a different viewpoint. I actually thought it was great training. I really felt a lot of pressure in a positive way because I always wanted to win for my team and to represent Princeton and succeed for Princeton and be a leader both by the way I trained in the gym here but also how I performed on the strip, and with the success that I had and help my team to succeed.
DP:What was the biggest obstacle you’d say you faced in your athletic career?
ST:I’m the only fencer from San Diego to fence internationally, consistently. I grew up in a place where I didn’t have role models and coaches where it was very easy to follow behind and see what they were doing. And the other thing was injuries. I’ve had a number of really bad injuries, and they’ve definitely made it hard to compete at different times. I’ve really had to back off on my training and competitions and things like that. In fact, one of them almost ended my career, and I was able to figure out a way around it and came back and qualified for the 2012 Olympics. Sometimes when you have a limitation, it forces you to work that much harder and think about things that much differently. In the end, that injury did make me better because I had to create a new type of fencing for myself, and that was a much stronger fencing than I had before.
DP:What was it like coming out of retirement to pursue the 2012 Olympics after your injury, and was it difficult transitioning back and forth between athletic and professional careers?
ST:That was an unusual thing — I was working full time, and I hadn’t been thinking about qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. Obviously it’s something everyone wants to do, so it was something I wanted to do, it just wasn’t my primary focus for a couple of years, so it was different. Fencing had been my primary focus from a very young age, until I qualified for the 2004 Olympics, and even through the 2008 cycle, which is when I got injured. … I was able to start experimenting with a certain methodology or approach to fencing that hadn’t been taught to me but that I had come up with myself and thought could be a way to perform very well despite the injury that I had. … I really pushed this methodology for myself … I had immediate success and I went from being in the hundreds in the world to being in the top 50, 20, and ultimately at the end of in the qualification period I was 7th in the world, the highest ranking I’d ever had, and it was completely worth it.