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Thompson '05 knocks off world's top fencer in Athens

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Fellow Tigers Tora Harris '02 (l.) and Soren Thompson '05 both competed in the Athens Olympics. Thompson finished in seventh overall in epée.
    After 15 months of intense training to prepare for the Summer Olympics in Athens, men's epée fencer Soren Thompson '05 had nine minutes to prove himself.

    Standing across the strip, readying himself for the Round of 16, was Alfredo Rota of Italy, the No. 1 ranked epée fencer in the world, seemingly an easy bout away from a spot in the quarterfinals.

    Given the circumstances, it would have been understandable if Thompson had been a bit nervous or flustered heading into the match with Rota.

    But he wasn't. So when he "saw a lot of openings early," Thompson didn't miss his chance. He immediately put the heavy favorite on the defensive, jumping to a 5-0 lead. Rota began battling back, but Thompson kept control.

    Finally, Rota scored two consecutive touches to tie it at 13. With less than 20 seconds left, the next touch would likely decide the match.

    Rota tried the same move for a third consecutive time. But Thompson was ready — he moved forward and counterattacked, scoring a touch to take the lead. When Thompson warded off one last desperation attempt, victory was his.

    Although he would lose his quarterfinal match, Thompson had already made history. His seventh place finish was the best Olympic performance by an American man in his event since 1956.

    The showing fully validated Thompson's decision to take a year off from Princeton to train for Athens.

    "I couldn't pass up the opportunity to reach my lifelong goal of making the Olympic team," Thompson said.

    During his sabbatical, the San Diego native trained in Los Angeles, New York, and Europe and competed in World Cup and Olympic qualifier tournaments all across the globe. His best international showing during that time was eighth at the 2003 World Championships in October.

    "It was pretty exhausting, but fun too. Not many people get the opportunity," Thompson said. "I got to see so much [during my travels]."

    Ultimately, Thompson was one of three Americans to qualify for the Olympics epée event. He received the No. 15 seed in the field of 37.

    After receiving an opening round bye, Thompson defeated No. 18 seed Paris Inostroza of Chile, 13-12, in the Round of 32. The match provided a bit of revenge, as well — Inostroza had defeated Thompson in the finals of a tournament in July.

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Soren Thompson '05 marched in the Opening Ceremony in Athens, along with U.S. men's basketball player Carmelo Anthony (l.).
    The victory set up the showdown with Rota, whom Sports Illustrated had picked to take the gold medal.

    Thompson credited the 15-13 triumph to a strategy that focused on avoiding picking at Rota's hands, a strategy the Italian excels at and often sucks opponents into.

    "I wanted a stronger, more direct game," Thompson explained.

    Perhaps even more importantly, Thompson believed he could win.

    "If you don't have confidence, it's almost impossible to win," he said. "I'm happy with how I reacted — I elevated my game."

    After upsetting the Italian, Thompson had just 30 minutes to recover before the quarterfinals. Once again he was the heavy underdog, facing No. 10 seed Pavel Kolobkov of Russia. Thompson called Kolobkov, who won gold in Sydney in 2000, the most accomplished active fencer in the world.

    The bout started evenly. But with the score 5-5, Thompson became overaggressive and Kolobkov took advantage and took control. Still, Thompson was encouraged by the 15-11 final score, a much closer tally then in their previous bouts. Kolobkov ultimately took bronze.

    Although the loss to Kolobkov ended his individual run, Thompson fenced again as part of the team epée competition. The Americans lost to France, defeated China, and fell to Ukraine en route to sixth place.

    Thompson was less then pleased by his showing against France, but redeemed himself with a plus-six performance against China. He did not fence against Ukraine, chosing to let the team alternate take his place.

    Now, just a few weeks after his triumph, Thompson is back at Princeton, excited to begin his senior year and resume the life of a normal college student.

    "It feels good to be back, I'm looking forward to the year," he said. "I'm not going to be happy if I just fence all the time — I felt a lot of closure at the Olympics."

    Thompson hasn't decided whether he'll continue fencing long enough to compete in Beijing in 2008, saying it depends on the job offers he receives.

    He does, however, intend to fence this year at Princeton. The Tigers finished seventh in the nation without him last season. If Thompson can reclaim the NCAA epée title — he took first as a freshman and second as a sophomore — Princeton could sneak into the top five nationally.

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