Every kid needs a hero and for Olympic fencing champion LEI Sheng (CHN) it was no different. “I started fencing because I liked Zorro,” said the London 2012 foil gold medallist. “I felt I would become very cool if I could be like him.”
Things have come full circle at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, where LEI has become an idol for a new generation of children.
Along with 2013 foil world champion Miles CHAMLEY-WATSON (USA), the Chinese is an ‘Athlete Role Model’.
The duo took part in a fencing initiation workshop at the International Expo Centre this week, when they showed more than 100 youngsters the basics of the sport.
“I like to be part of this,” LEI said. “It's great that me and Miles, as champions, can interact with kids. It's the best way to promote fencing.”
“It’s been a great turnout,” said CHAMLEY-WATSON. “It’s nice to see that fencing is getting bigger and the kids are having a great time.
“The other day a couple of kids from Papua New Guinea and Brunei came up to me and said 'You know, you are my idol', and I didn't even know that fencing existed in those countries.”
CHAMLEY-WATSON, who was born in Britain but moved to the United States aged nine, revealed that he too was inspired by an older athlete.
“When I was a kid my dream was to become an Olympic champion. I didn't really have idols, but I liked Simone VANNI from Italy [gold medallist in men's team foil at Athens 2004].
“He's one of my good friends now, someone I watched while growing up because I liked his style.
“My dream was to go to the Olympics and I pursued it.”
Now CHAMLEY-WATSON is enjoying returning the favour to the next generation.
“It’s been great,” said the 24-year-old. “The kids have been extremely receptive. They love having us around and asking questions.
“Things like, what we've been through at the Olympic Games, how we eat, how we train, how we sleep. For them it's a big deal, and for me it's great to help them out.”
For LEI, the social side of fencing is a large part of its appeal. “When I was a kid I used to swim,” said the 30-year-old. “But a swimmer trains by himself. In fencing we are competing one against the other. It’s interesting because we make a lot of friends.
LEI and CHAMLEY-WATSON are in good company. International Olympic Committee President Thomas BACH (GER) won gold in the team foil event at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games and attended the initiation workshop this week.
“It was great to see Mr BACH fencing with some kids,” LEI said. “It's just fantastic for our sport, the kids were really interested.”