Miles Chamley-Watson may not be a household name just yet, but the British-born American fencer is one of the most enigmatic athletes on Instagram and almost single-handedly bringing fencing into the mainstream.
Chamley-Watson is not your prototypical fencer. He stands at six foot four inches tall, has dyed hair, and is covered in tattoos. His highlight reels — many of which he posts on his Instagram — look like they would be featured on Sportscenter’s Top 10. Plus, in a sport where few top athletes are pulling in huge endorsement deals, Chamley-Watson is sponsored by Coach and Red Bull.
Thanks to a mixture of his online presence, unique fencing style, and new-age approach to the sport, Chamley-Watson is changing the way fencing is perceived — inside and out. We caught up with the athlete during lockdown in Los Angeles to see what he’s been up to, where he sees fencing going, and what makes him so special.
You’re not what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a fencer — both on the mat, with regards to your style of play, and off the mat, thanks to your social media presence. Do you think that will inspire more kids to take up the sport?
Even people who were aware of fencing, their perception of it has changed now that they see me. For me, it's great when kids who might not be so familiar with the sport go, “Oh, this is cool!” So if I can inspire kids to take up fencing [by being different to the stereotypical fencer], that’s great. I think it’s important that we keep growing as a sport.
How do you manage to stand out on the mat once it's time to put all the gear on?
I think the best way is obviously your style of play, because that’s what differentiates you from everybody else. I also decided to put the American flag on my mask and I wanted to add sponsors, too, to be different from other fencers, as that’s never been done before. There are a lot of ways to use your uniform to your advantage, per se. I also think my mannerisms and my style of play is different to what’s out there.
You also have a go-to move...
So basically, I hit my opponent around their back through my legs. It doesn’t make any sense – just watch my highlights on Instagram. I just did it out of curiosity once. That’s the beauty about the sport, you can just practice and you create these new actions or moves, that express who you are and make you stand out from everybody else.
How has the sport changed over time?
In other countries, fencers are paid by their federations and they have their own sponsors. In the US, if you’re lucky, you have one sponsor. I’ve been lucky that all of my sponsors, that have been with me from the beginning, have seen my potential, and that I can essentially change the entire sport. It’s kind of on my shoulders [to change the perception of fencing], but I think there hasn’t been anyone like me. This gives [kids] the blueprint that you can do what you want if you’re just being yourself.
How have you used social media to position yourself as the “cool” face of fencing?
Social media is incredible for me because it gives me a platform that I might not have had, since I’m not on TV every day. A lot of sponsors that I do have see that I get very good engagement. I try to make my videos like a highlight reel, where people can go, “Oh, this is dope.” I think a platform where you can just get up and express yourself is what people in the sport lacked. Emotions are the best thing about sports.
You’re affiliated with Nike and Coach and are generally into fashion. How did that affinity start?
I always loved fashion as a little kid. My mum was telling me that I just loved clothes; I’d steal my sister’s clothes and wear them. And I think fashion is a way to express yourself without boundaries — just like in fencing. They go hand-in-hand.
How would you describe your personal style?
One day I could be in a three-piece suit, the next I could be wearing some streetwear. I’m a huge fan of Coach, of course, not only because I work with them but because of what they’ve been doing lately. I love Dior and think Kim Jones is a genius. Rick Owens is also one of my favorite brands to wear.
You grew up in London before moving to New York at a young age, so you can speak to both cities’ cultures, style, and vibe. Which is your favorite?
In London, we grew up playing football, rugby, and cricket. It was just a different culture, but still really diverse because there were so many Europeans in London. In America, I wouldn’t say there was more freedom, but I was exposed to a lot more in New York [than in London]. The way we dressed in London was so different. We were wearing tight-fitting pants years before anybody else was and what we wore to go to school was so different. In New York you wore way more baggy stuff.
So are you more Air Force 1 or Air Max?
I’m an Air Max kind of guy. I’m a London, Air Max 1, 95, 97, 98. I love Air Max. My mum would get me Nikes when I was younger; I’ve always had a thing for sneakers.
What makes a good fencing shoe?
A proven fencing shoe would be similar to a boxing shoe. You’re on your feet a lot, they have to have a good feel, but it also has to be pretty sturdy, because we change direction a lot. It would be between a tennis shoe, a boxing shoe, and with a track heel.
Would you ever pull a P.J. Tucker and wear hyped sneakers on the mat?
Well, one time I was super cocky and I switched to a gold Air Force 1. It was a little bit too heavy — once, I forgot my fencing shoes and I fenced in Air Max 1s and it was actually not that bad. It was the atmos pack, the Safari colorway.
You should fence in the Dior 1s.
Oh, you already know I’m going to do that. People would be so mad at me.
What have you been watching while in quarantine?
[The Last Dance] was the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen. We all thought we knew Michael Jordan, but we didn’t know him at all. I think it just shows you that, while LeBron is incredible, there’s no one touching Jordan. I think that just solidified it for everybody. Actually, my mum just sent me this photo [that I posted on Instagram] and it’s me dressed as Dennis Rodman when I was, like, eight. He’s someone I’m really fascinated by and people kind of compare me to him. They say I’m the Rodman of fencing.
Bruce Lee just got the ESPN 30 for 30 treatment — you actually have a tattoo of him, right?
Well, he’s my number one inspiration. I’ve been watching him since I was a kid and I was just fascinated by everything about him. I also just found out that he was a fencer. So I had to get him on my leg, where everyone can see it.