It was the laughter that did it. Shortly after Kamara James took up fencing, she overheard some fellow novices say that no American had ever won an Olympic gold medal in the sport. Though just a sixth-grader, Kamara promptly predicted that she would be the first. Naturally, the others laughed at her. "That's basically why I fence," James says, laughing at the memory herself. "I've made it a point to prove them wrong."
That determination has helped James, 17, establish herself among the world's best fencers. She is the top-ranked American woman under 19 and the second-ranked senior American woman in �p�e. Last January she finished fifth at the Junior World Cup in Budapest. In August the 5'7", 140-pound James placed 40th in epee at the senior world championships in Lisbon, a respectable showing because �p�e, with long, strategic bouts, favors more experienced competitors. "I definitely see Kamara as a future Olympic medalist," says Peter Westbrook, whose sabre bronze in the 1984 Games is the last medal earned by a U.S. fencer.
The sword has already taken her far. In 1994 James's family moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to a section of Jamaica, Queens, where the sound of gunshots was not uncommon. James found fencing about two years later when her teacher at P.S. 3, Andrea Schwartz, mentioned a program, run by her acquaintance Westbrook, that uses fencing to help inner-city kids. Not only does the Peter Westbrook Foundation churn out quality fencers, including three members of the last U.S. Olympic team, it also stresses education and provides minority role models, such as Westbrook himself, who grew up in the Newark projects. James, a gifted runner and dancer, showed up at Westbrook's gym the next weekend and quickly proved herself a natural fencer. "It just changed my whole life," she says.
The foundation guided James toward a scholarship at The Dwight School on New York's Upper West Side. Fencing no doubt also helped her find a spot in Princeton's class of '06, though not as much as her straight-A average and 1,510 SATs. James is undecided about fencing for the Tigers but remains focused on the Olympics. Her work ethic, says Westbrook, is "almost maniacal—in a good way."
"I'm all about the medal," says James. "It will probably take 10 or 15 years, but I'll chase it for as long as it takes."