Philadelphian sets sights on gold medal in fencing

Miles Chamley-Watson (right) earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic fencing team in April. GETTY IMAGES
Miles Chamley-Watson (right) earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic fencing team in April. GETTY IMAGES
Posted: July 16, 2012

One day is what Miles Chamley-Watson keeps telling himself.

To become an Olympic champion, the Philadelphia resident only needs to be the best for one tournament on July 31.

For 8 hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the men's individual foil competition will take place at the 2012 London Olympics.

Win six matches, from a round of 64 to the gold-medal match and Chamley-Watson will have one of the greatest homecomings in Olympic history.

"I honestly think I can win the gold medal," said Chamley-Watson, who moved from London to New York when he was 9 and New York to Philadelphia when he was 12. "Last year, I finished ranked No. 2 in the world.

“I know what it's like to be on that stage. I know the competition. The whole competition is just 1 day. I just need to be the best for a single day to win the gold medal."

Imagine being one of the rare individuals ever to qualify to participate in an Olympic Games.

Now imagine representing your adopted country at an Olympic Games hosted by your native country in the city where you were born, spent your childhood and is still the home of most of your family and some lifelong friends.

Then you might begin to imagine the cloud Chamley-Watson, 22, has floated on since he earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic team on April 15 in Virginia Beach, Va.

After nearly a year of competing in 13 events around the world, Chamley-Watson became one of the three competitors to make the USA squad in both the team and individual foil competition.

He returns to London to compete in an elegant European sport that he didn't take up until he moved to New York in 1999.

"I am coming home," said Chamley-Watson, who gave up the opportunity to represent Great Britain when he competed for the United States at the 2010 Senior World Championships. "Just to make the Olympics is a dream in itself, but to have those Olympics be in my hometown is something you can't even try to think about."

Coming to the States was a different experience for Chamley-Watson. He was the kid with the funny accent.

"It was hard at first," said Chamley-Watson, who moved to Philadelphia in 2001 after the attacks on Sept. 11. "I had a different accent from everybody else. All of my friends were back in England.

“I was young, but it was still hard to get comfortable. It took a little bit of time."

But an extroverted personality allowed him to make friends quickly. It was his willingness to embrace new things that led him to try fencing at an after-school program.

"I just fell in love with it," said Chamley-Watson.

"I just wanted to keep doing it and suddenly, before I knew it, I was really deep into it."

Fencing became a focus in Chamley-Watson's life. After 2 years of high school at Delaware Valley Friends in Paoli, he transferred to a boarding school in New York, in part to continue his development at the Fencers Club in Manhattan, which was established in 1883 and is the oldest continuous organization in the Western Hemisphere dedicated to teaching and promoting fencing.

His coach, Simon Gershon, was formerly the head coach of the men's and women's foil teams of Ukraine. He's been the USA men's foil coach since 1996.

Chamley-Watson said he grew up fighting the stereotypes about fencing.

"People were, like, ‘Oh, Miles, he's a fencer,' knew I was a fencer," he said, mimicking a mocking tone, "but once I started winning competitions and getting recognized in the newspaper, they were, like, ‘OK, fencing isn't just a nerdy sport' — because I am far from that.

“Now that I've made the Olympic team, people are really proud of me."

Chamley-Watson is member of Penn State's fencing team and earned All-America honors as a freshman, sophomore and junior.

He redshirted for the 2011-12 season to focus on making the Olympic team, but the sports management major plans to return to State College in the fall.

"My whole family was really happy and excited about me making the Olympics," Chamley-Watson said. "It's going to be thrilling. Just about my entire family is still in London, and I've got childhood friends there."

"It's going to be thrilling. This is one of the best moments that could happen in my life."

The competition will be tough. And the odds of medaling will be stacked against Chamley-Watson. The 2008 Olympic champion, German Benjamin Kleibrink, enters the competition ranked just 18th. Led by Andrea Cassarà, Italy features the top three foil competitors.

Chamley-Watson enters the Olympics ranked 30th. His U.S. teammates, 19-year-old Race Imboden (fifth) and 18-year-old Alexander Massialas (10th), are both ranked ahead of him.

Still, fencing competitions can be fickle and unpredictable.

After winning bronze in his Olympic debut in Athens in 2004, Cassarà entered the Beijing Games ranked No.1. A shocking loss to China's Zhu Jun in the quarterfinals kept Cassarà off the medal stand.

No American has ever won the individual men's foil competition at an Olympics. Only two American men have ever medaled in the event.

"My goal is to win a gold medal," Chamley-Watson said. "Anything short of that will be disappointing.

“I had a good season last year. I know how these competitions go. If you peak at the right time, you can win them.

“All I'm looking for is 1 day, one tournament. That's it."

Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/JohnSmallwood.

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