When the Olympics kick off in Tokyo on Friday, it will be to empty arenas. There will be no spectators — and no family members of athletes in attendance, because of COVID-19 concerns.
However, for fencer siblings Khalil and Kamali Thompson, the games will still be a family affair.
In May, Khalil clinched his spot on Team USA when he won gold at the North American Cup. His sister Kamali, 29, qualified as the alternate.
“Having family there will be amazing,” Khalil, 24, told The Post. “Kamali is one of my best friends. We’ve talked about [the Olympics for years] . . . so her being here is great. It’s a bonus.”
Kamali narrowly missed the squad when she slipped from the fourth to fifth slot in March during a World Cup competition in Budapest. She should have had one more chance to put herself back in the running — but the last international qualifying event was canceled in April. No country was willing to host due to the pandemic, ending her bid early.
“I was so upset,” Kamali told The Post. “For the opportunity to be taken away . . . I just wasn’t prepared for those emotions.” A week later, she witnessed Khalil make the team. “It overwhelmed anything I was going through.
Normally, alternates would not attend the games; this year, they need to be on hand in case athletes are felled by the virus or required to quarantine.
The siblings have another hard-won dream to celebrate: Kamali, who also has an MBA, just became a doctor. After graduating from Rugers in the spring, she is a resident in orthopedic surgery at Temple.
Notably, the pair aren’t the only fencer siblings going to Tokyo. Californians Sabrina and Alexander Massialas will be there, coached by their three-time Olympian father, Greg. However, the Thompsons, of Teaneck, NJ, had no family tie to the sport.
Kamali was a 12-year-old ballerina looking to join the dance team when she attended an open house for Teaneck HS’s rising freshmen. But her mom, Avis Bishop Thompson, who works in the legal field, happened to walk into the cafeteria where the fencing team was practicing. Coach Pat Lawrence noted that it was a good sport to have on college applications.
Much to her then-chagrin, Kamali never made it to the dance room.
“My mom tells you what is going to happen, and there are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she recalled. “She told me I was going to fence.”
Kamali joined the team and, initially, was just going through the motions. But by her sophomore year, she was sick of losing. That’s when she asked her coach how she could improve. Lawrence suggested going to Peter Westbrook, the New York City nonprofit training center founded by a former Olympian.
There, she said, “All the kids my age were extremely good and nationally ranked, so I was self-conscious.”
No so for her brother — who had been told by their mother that he could either join in or get dragged to meets and watch from the sidelines.
“He was so excited to be fencing with swords!” Kamali recalled.
With hard work and grit, they both began to excel.
“I’m the younger brother so I do younger-brother annoying things. But fencing has put us in a place where we have to see each other as adults,” Khalil said. “Sometimes at tournaments I will coach her. Sometimes she has coached me. It really helps. Now we have a close bond.”
Not that he’s above teasing his big sister. Khalil told The Post that Kamali is the biggest Harry Potter nerd in the world and has “terrible taste” in television, including loving “America’s Next Top Model.”
But he has definitely needed and appreciated her support.
Five years ago, while attending Penn State, Khalil grew depressed and almost gave up the sport.
“Most of my friends were shocked because I seemed like a happy-go-lucky guy . . . and boom, I just changed,” said Khalil.
He left school and returned to their mom’s home, where he began therapy. He found support in his fencing community and strength in speaking up about mental health.
He’s now studying communications at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.
Khalil is single and commutes to school and training from the family home. Kamali recently moved to Philadelphia and is dating Marty William Jr., a 2016 Olympic hopeful who has coached her at a few World Cups. As for the siblings’ mom, she has planned a watch party at home.
Khalil hopes to give her something extra special to see: “I want to come home with a medal,” he said. Thankfully, he will have his biggest cheerleader, the good Doctor Kamali, at his side.
As she said: “It’s really cool to see him grow up and find himself and for me to be a part of that journey.”