Olympian Miles Chamley-Watson on the transformative powers of sport

A fencer celebrating a victory.

Chamley-Watson made history when he became the first US fencer to win an individual gold medal at the World Championships. Here, the Olympian and member shares how finding sport changed his life

As told to Aleah Aberdeen   Above image: Miles Chamley-Watson (Getty)    Saturday 8 August, 2020   Short read 

‘I was always getting into trouble as a kid and got kicked out of school for fighting. Then I was like, swords are cool – let’s fight people and not get into trouble for it. Without sport I have no idea where I’d be in this world. It changed my life. When I put on my mask, I put on my superpower; I feel untouchable.

‘I love the competitiveness, the sweat, and the mental and physical aspects. I can spar and release whatever I’m carrying throughout the day. When you’re in a sport, that’s all you’re thinking about, no matter what’s going on in the outside world.

‘When I was nine, me and my mum moved from London to New York. It was a weird experience for me, because there weren’t many people who were mixed race. Kids were like, “You’re African-American” and, technically, I was neither. I was a mixed kid from London where football ruled in sports. These weren’t really big things in the US, so there was quite a large culture barrier.

‘You couldn’t tell me anything. I was the worst kid growing up, hanging around on the streets. I was this ADHD-fuelled wild child, and you know how it goes… I got kicked out of school. Luckily, my mum met a counsellor who was working at a private school and got me an interview there. But to enrol, I had to pick up an extracurricular activity for three months. It was between tennis, badminton or fencing, and I thought I’d try something different.

‘Fencing became my drug. It took out all of my aggression and I started to get good. And with that came enjoyment. I was lucky to fall in love with sport straight away and I knew this at about 12 years old. I didn’t know that I was necessarily talented, but having the work ethic to outwork everybody else, that I knew. Don’t get me wrong, you miss out on a lot of childhood things. You don’t get to go to prom or see your friends as much, because you’ve got to get up in the morning – but you’re committed to your craft. By the age of 15, I’d won the Junior Olympics.
Two masked fencers fighting each other with swords.
Miles Chamley-Watson (Getty)
‘Sport has taught me to master time management; I finish tasks before I take on another, I’m disciplined to the point where I know I’ll have to make sacrifices, and I’m dedicated. I’ll never lose those qualities, because that’s shaped me as a person and got me to where I am today. Recently, I’ve taken up meditation. I try to do seven minutes every morning and I’ll manifest my future. With fencing competitions currently on pause, I still set small goals every month, and I dream about them like crazy.

‘You can literally do anything you want in life. There’s a new surge of unique people coming into this era. With social media everyone has a platform now, and it’s a blessing. I’m working on fashion and commercial stuff, too, which you might not expect from a professional fencer. My goal is to transform elitist perceptions of the sport and disrupt the status quo. If someone’s like, “Oh we’re never gonna sign a fencer to Nike”, I’m like, “Alright, watch. I’ll be first one”, and I am.

‘For fencing, the next goal is winning the Olympic individual gold, but I have a foundation for kids, too. I launched it because I hate wasted talent. People can’t always afford college or extracurricular activities. I want to get a million kids into fencing; it’s a different lane – everyone can play basketball, football or soccer. That’s cool, but I want to show children that you can be different and still be successful. There’s no better feeling than to be a role model. I didn’t have my dad growing up, so I looked to other inspirations. Role models give you a base that you can use and take it in whatever trajectory you want. In that you’ll have direction, and most importantly self-belief, which is so powerful. 

‘I’ve learned to take risks, no matter what. When I was competing in Turkey, I ended up hitting someone behind my head without using my body. It was spur of the moment and a complete gamble, but it paid off. Now that move is coined in my name. When I’m fencing, I’m always in the moment; I’m not thinking of the repercussions, and that drive has pushed me every day. Winning at the Olympics, the World Championships or anything in life, I could never look back and think, what if? You can’t get complacent, there’s never a finish line.’

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