Team USA Fencer Miles Chamley-Watson won a Bronze Medal last night in the men's team foil competition. Chamley-Watson and his teammates - Gerek Meinhardt, Alexander Massialas, and Race Imboden - captured the bronze with their 45-31 win over Italy, marking the first time in 84 years that Team USA medaled in the event.
Prior to departing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, The Shadow League's J.R. Gamble caught up with the young man in late June that he describes as "the Jackie Robinson of fencing with the flair of Rickey Henderson" who is changing the face of his sport.
Fencing is one of the five original Olympic sports and has been a mainstay event at Olympic Games since 1896 in Athens, Greece. It’s also one of the oldest sports ever invented with an origin dating back to the 15th century.
The beauty of fencing was once in its exclusivity and anonymity which always protected the virtues, etiquette and historical direction of the sport. Americans don’t traditionally dominate on an international level and most African Americans probably didn’t know the sport existed until a kick-ass, mold-breaking, ground-obliterating, fencing machine named Miles Chamley-Watson from Manhattan, via London, sliced into the scene and started shredding competition.
“It’s a really intimate one-on-one combat,” Watson told the Shadow League in a recent interview covering his brilliant rise to fencing pioneer. “You have a weapon in your hand that makes you really powerful. That's what drew me to it.”
In 2013, Watson, of Jamaican, Irish, British and Malawian descent, stormed the game and flipped it upside down with his light black skin, his bleach-blond hair, urban jungle personified gangsta grillz, intelligence, side gig as a fashion model and demonstrative expression. The 23-year-old who always knew he’d leave a mark, but didn’t know how soon, became the first American to ever win the World Championship in Senior Men’s Foil.
Thus began the legend of the naturally-gifted swordsman. He’s made his name by going against the grain, obliterating all past assumptions about the sport and transforming it from a “gentleman’s” contest to machismo-driven hand-to-hand combat.
“My approach is very unconventional,” Watson said. “I do a lot of big actions. I’m always trying to do new things take risks and I'm very aggressive. I'm very wild and emotional and not to mention my looks are different than everybody else. My hair, tattoos, I'm just very different from most people."
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The World Champion's innovativeness has helped him become the only man in fencing history with his own move named after him, “The Chamley-Watson.” This originated during the 2009 World Championships in Turkey when the statuesque, 6-4, 185-pounder, possessing a wingspan like a condor, wrapped his arms around the back of his head to hit his opponent.
"I just did it and didn't think about how I was doing it," Chamley-Watson said. "I whipped my arm around my back, and I was like, 'Whoa I hit someone.' Made it up on the go, didn't plan it or anything."
Miles admits that he’s not the most technically sound fencer, but he's confident that he's the most naturally gifted.
“A lot of guys in this game are cautious," he continued. "I'm able to see things that other people can't see. I see things slower and my reaction time and the way I process information is faster than anyone. It's almost like they are moving in slow motion to me.”
Watson’s world is moving faster than a Ferrari these days. He’s creating a collision of sports, fashion and considering his cornucopia of ethnicities -- crazy culture.
He’s definitely the first fencer to wear a set of grillz on the championship podium of a competition.
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“They were like what's in your mouth,” Watson said, contorting his voice in an attempt to sound like a snooty Englishman. “I was like, don’t worry about it,” he laughed.
He’s not the kind of guy to alter his personality or try to change who he is to fit in. Watson has always just fenced to the beat of his own athletic symphony, bringing that gutter sound and Hip-Hop infused energy. You got a guy that’s doing straight shots of Henny with his fencing style, going against wine and mixed drink sippers.
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He's turning a sport that is as off the radar as it gets in America into a fashionable and attractive lion’s den. In addition to being an accomplished high school soccer and basketball player at Knox School before becoming a fencing fixture at Penn State, Watson is also well known for his ventures in fashion, his runway appearances at New York’s Fashion Week and his various spreads for magazines and publications over the past few years.
Dare we say he's “The total fencing package?”
With almost 40,000 Instagram followers and 23,000 Twitter stalkers, it’s clear that as impressive as Watson’s run has been, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as how influential an athlete he could be.
The traditional fencing community took a while to warm up to his evolutionary tactics, but Watson’s authenticity and his historic victory in 2013 has helped him overcome the initial resistance.
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Chamley-Watson: "The opponents would talk about me and say, 'Oh God... he's doing this and that..ultimately it doesn't change anything for me because I know who and I am and what I want. After winning, now people are pretty much...people are letting me roll with it. It's become a phenomenon pretty much.”
Chamley-Watson says what he offers to the sport overrides any negative views on how he freaks his funk because he's bringing "an audience that that wouldn't otherwise study fencing and getting them interested in the sport."
Chamley-Watson: "I bring a fresh new face to an old sport. I'm relatable to a lot of kids and that's what going to put a sport that's considered elitist and niche on a mainstream stage. That's why I'm getting all this good media attention and great sponsors. That's what is separating me from everybody else."
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Watson isn’t just jousting for fun anymore, but performing well in Rio isn’t motivated by the endorsements that follow either. He’s already got a big boi Benz full of money-making marketing love from Red Bull, Nike, Perky Jerky, AF (Absolute Fencing Gear), Myobrace and GoPro.
Which led me to ask him how the pressures of this new-found fame and his endeavors outside of fencing will affect him as the No. 12-ranked fencer in the world and an Olympic favorite. In 2010, he was the No. 2 ranked fencer on the globe and finished 25th overall in the London Games.
“All of this is motivating to me," he insisted. “It does not bother me at all. Its natural. I’m me all the time so I don't have to exert energy being anybody else regardless of how famous I get. I’ve been this person my entire life.”
It’s almost like Watson’s rise to fencing dominance and celebrity status was his destiny. As a kid growing up in the Putney area of London, Miles used to get into trouble trying to channel his misplaced energy. He would speak out of turn in class and poke kids with sticks, he couldn’t keep still and admittedly just liked to “cause trouble.”
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When Miles was just nine years old, his parents Elizabeth and Colin moved to Manhattan’s West Side. Switching countries, however, didn’t soften his passion for swords, action or antics.
Chamley-Watson: “Every little kid growing up around me just liked swords. It was very fun and it was something I just tried.”
“I got into trouble a few times and fencing was offered as an after school program and I tried it ...and before I knew it I was winning competitions and not really even training that much. Fencing taught me discipline. I was a pain in the ass kid growing up. I started taking it seriously and a few months down the line I won the Junior Olympics and that’s kind of when my initial spark kind of happened.”
Eventually he began honing his skills under the tutelage of the great Simon Gershon, a fencing Hall of Famer who formerly coached both the Ukrainian Men’s and Women’s Foil Squad and the Soviet Union Women’s Foil Team (Gold Medalists at the 1986 World Championships). He was also a coach at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, and has served as the US National Men’s Foil Coach.
Gershon’s jewels combined with a disappointing finish at the London Olympics, set the stage for the Miles Chamley-Watson explosion that followed.
Chamley-Watson: "The Olympics in 2012 was in my hometown and my whole family got to watch me and my grandmother got to see me fence for the first time and that was amazing. I obviously didn't win but after that I went crazy and won a world championship. It was really tough. It sucked actually but it was all to create thick skin. The best athlete has the shortest memory, I was able to brush it off with the help of my friends and that was it. That's what took me over the edge. Now I know what's going on and what I need to do, so I'm ready."
Fencing's Young Don followed up that historic World Championship in Men’s Foil with a gold medal at The Pan-Am Games in 2015, continuing a long list of triumphs and learning experiences dating back to 2007 and then into college, where Watson was a three-time First-Team All-American and two-time NCAA Champion at Penn State.
The accolades kept growing along with the recognition that something special was in the making.
With his family now settled in Philadelphia, Miles continues to raise fencing’s attractability and appeal. Though just 26 years old and still improving, he has become the face of fencing and is also shedding a light on the sport so other charismatic and talented fencers can be recognized for their artistry and athletic prowess.
He’s the Jackie Robinson of fencing with the flair of Rickey Henderson. Not that he’s the greatest fencer in history, but the way Watson expresses his fencing prowess transcends cultures.
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Chamley-Watson: "I’ve seen a huge increase in people of color taking on fencing. You got parents stopping me in the streets and all kinds of stuff. With everything I’m doing, I’m making myself a recognizable face period. I get stopped a lot now at latest 5-10 times a day. I don't like the word celebrity but I guess I'm getting very popular."
For once, he was being modest. Miles Chamley-Watson is already popular. His next destination is pop culture icon.