By Gary Anderson

American Olympic fencer Kamara James has died at the age of 29 ©Keeth SmartTributes have been paid to former American Olympic fencer Kamara James who has died at the age of 29 in Modesto, California.

James was one of the youngest fencers at Athens 2004 when, at the age of 19, she was the only United States woman to compete in the épée competition.

James qualified for Athens by earning bronze at the 2004 Fencing World Cup in Katowice, Poland, while a year earlier she had claimed bronze at the 2003 Junior World Championships in Trapani, Italy.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, James moved to New York City with her mother at the age of 10 and went on to excel at school, eventually earning a scholarship to Princeton University.

She took a year out of college to follow her dream of competing at the Olympics in Athens and despite a lack of funding, she made it to the Games after raising more than $50,000 (£31,000/€39,000) in donations to support her travel and training.

"Most people can't book their own plane tickets at that age and she created a budget for two full seasons," said friend and former team mate Keeth Smart, who won team sabre silver at Beijing 2008.

"She made up her mind, knew she wanted to do this and that was it.

"She reached out to donors with a business plan and what her short term and long term goals were as well as what the return on investment would be.

"She was really grounded in terms of knowing how to take the steps she would need to reach any goal.

"Bar none, Kamara was one of the smartest people I've ever come across.

"Sometimes the strongest and fastest win, but to have a great career in fencing, you have to be one of the smartest and she definitely was it."

Keeth Smart (left) has led tributes to former team mate Kamara James (far right) following her death ©Keeth Smart/USA FencingKeeth Smart (left) has led tributes to former team mate Kamara James (far right) following her death ©Keeth Smart/USA Fencing

James retired from competitive fencing following Athens and returned to Princeton where she earned a degree in religious studies.

"She made the decision to do one Olympics and then went back to Princeton, but she always loved fencing," added Smart.

"It really changed the trajectory of her life and she appreciated everything she learned from the sport and all of the opportunities she had."

However, mental illness cast a shadow over James' life and during her time at Princeton she admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

After receiving treatment she completed her studies at Princeton on time and went on to earn admission into Harvard University to pursue a master's degree in comparative religion.

"Kamara James was one of the brightest, precocious, self-assured young people I ever met," said USA Fencing President Donald Anthony Jr.

"From her time as a very young fencer at the Peter Westbrook Foundation to her years at Princeton as an accomplished Olympian she remained warm, caring and confident.

"Kamara's untimely passing leaves our fencing community very saddened and her spirit, charm and wit will be dearly missed."

Her cause of death has not been disclosed.

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