This three-time Olympian juggled medical school with training for Paris 2024: ‘I would not recommend it to anybody'

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Kat Holmes is used to being asked how she pulled off the near-impossible feat of qualifying for the Olympics while simultaneously attending medical school.

As she prepares for her third Olympic Games this summer, the 30-year-old fencer still isn't sure how to answer the question. 

"I almost don't know," says Holmes, who spoke with CNBC Make It while promoting her partnership with the fitness coaching app Future. "I just closed my eyes and did it." 

Holmes, who also graduated magna cum laude from Princeton with a degree in neuroscience, had a schedule that was packed to the brim. A normal day might see her in the anatomy lab dissecting a cadaver, followed by some time in the hospital and then, finally, fencing practice. 

On weekends when she was competing, Holmes would go to the airport straight from her Friday classes and take an overnight flight to a destination like Qatar where she'd arrive on Saturday morning for her Sunday competition.

"I wasn't sleeping on the plane, I was studying. I'd go compete, study between each of my bouts, go right from the competition to the airport, fly back and go right from the airport to class," she says. "It was awful, really."

But Holmes says she pushed forward because her goals were clear: she wanted to make the 2024 Olympic team and she wanted to be a doctor. So when things got difficult, she took them one at at time. 

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"I was really taking it day by day, moment by moment," she says. "I was trying not to think much beyond that, because then it became really overwhelming."

Holmes sat down with CNBC Make It ahead of her trip to Paris 2024 to talk about learning to deal with burnout, the perks of a paper planner and how she "would not recommend" being in medical school while training for the Olympics.

How she learned to handle burnout

I don't think it's possible to avoid burnout, but I've gotten much better at recognizing the earliest signs. 

When I was going through my first Olympic cycle [in 2016], I definitely got burnt out. I was going 100% all the time. Now that I've been competing at this high level for 15 years, I recognize the signs. First my body kind of starts to hurt a little bit more. Then I don't sleep as well. Then anhedonia, you have a little harder time finding pleasure in things. 

I recognize those a bit earlier and I say "Oh, okay, I'm pushing a bit too hard." I'm better at knowing what I need to do in order to refresh myself or combat that. Sometimes I need to take a week off. I never take a week off of training, but maybe I need to take a week off of fencing, specifically. Maybe I need to do other types of cross training. Maybe it's as simple as needing to go out with friends for a night. 

I'm much better at being able to address it earlier. It's much easier to be like "I need to pull back a little bit to prevent myself from burning out" than to get to the point where you're like "I don't want to do this anymore." That's really hard to come back from. 

The benefits of keeping a physical planner

I think one advantage of having competed on the international circuit since I was 15 is I've been learning how to manage all these things for a really long time. 

I remember in high school they gave us these school planners and made us write down all of our homework and stuff. I actually still buy a paper planner every year and I write everything I need to do for the week in there. I sit down and I write every single due date as far into the future as I can. When I'm done, I cross it off and I know I don't have to deal with it.

I'm a big fan of lists, calendars and schedules, color coded. [In school] I would sit down at the beginning of every week, write it all down, highlight the stuff, and then I would just go

Why the challenges of the Olympics and med school are worthwhile

Holmes at the Tokyo Olympics. 
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Holmes at the Tokyo Olympics. 

It's not fun training for the Olympics while being in medical school. It's objectively not an enjoyable experience. I would not recommend it, really, to anybody. I don't like training all the time. Some days I hate it, objectively. 

However, at the end of the day, I love fencing. I really, really do. I just try to come back to that again and again. I want to win an Olympic medal, but I don't think that alone would have been enough to get me through it. 

It's the same with medical school. I really love being in the hospital and dealing with patients. The coursework sucks. I think for the majority of people, nobody's going to be like "I love medical school lectures!" They're boring, they're confusing, the tests are long. It's an arduous process. But I know that it's to get me to where I want to go. I'm really fortunate to not only have found one thing that I feel like that about, but two.

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