"She had a spirit about her, an energy about her," says a longtime friend, Jean Goto.
But on Sept. 20, the Olympic fencer was found dead in her apartment.
While a spokesperson for the coroner tells PEOPLE the death is still under investigation, it does not appear suspicious, and suicide is not believed to be the cause.
Quick StudyBorn in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised by a single mom in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Queens, New York, James changed her own path at age 9 when she was introduced to fencing by the Peter Westbrook Foundation and took to the sport immediately. By her late teens, she was a world junior bronze medalist.
Fencing also earned James a scholarship spot at a prestigious New York City private school and later a full ride to Princeton, where she majored in religion.
"She was really driven, really motivated, really focused," says Goto, 30, who started fencing at the same time.
Her focus took James far. In 2004, she alone represented the United States in women's épée at the Olympic Games in Athens.
After the Olympics she returned to Princeton. "She was just incredibly brilliant and a hard, diligent worker," says Eric Rosenberg, a onetime trainer and friend of almost 20 years. "She had a very facile mind, was a quick study, asked the right questions, had a very strong presence."
Difficult DiagnosisThen, during her senior year, her brilliant mind turned on her: James was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Rosenberg says. After a three-month stay in the hospital, James came back to school, wrote her thesis and managed to graduate on time.
Goto and James opened a fencing club in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the worst seemed behind her. "She was totally fine. She was vibrant. We had so much fun together," Goto says. "She had dreams: She was interested in acting and writing."
But a second breakdown led to "a slow, long ride," Rosenberg says. The onetime Olympic athlete and Ivy League alumna, long estranged from her mother, spent much of her 20s in and out of treatment and halfway houses, occasionally homeless.
Friends would find her wandering the streets in New York, incoherent and delusional. "She was beaten up. She lacked a lot of the energy she had," Rosenberg says. "She was emaciated, unkempt, wearing filthy clothes."
Rosenberg says he and others tried to get her help but were not always successful. "She would go into hospitals, get better or get more medication, then she would be released and there was no support for her," Goto says.
'It Takes a Community'"It takes a community and a system to help people [with schizophrenia]," says Dr. Lisa Piazza, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell. "Patients, often when they're psychotic, don't have as much insight into their illness: They can be difficult to work with you. You need a lot of people reaching out."
"We know that a safe, supportive living environment is really the crux of people starting to recover," says Ralph Fasano, executive director of Concern for Independent Living in New York.
In 2011, James moved to Modesto, California, and was recently living alone. Rosenberg believed she was doing well.
Her former mentor was devastated by the news of her death. "The only positive thing that came out of this for me is maybe people who have this kind of problem can see that there is some potential solution," Rosenberg says. "Making opportunities in the midst of tragedy defined her life."
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI.ORG