A group of young Bahraini fencing athletes had the experience of a lifetime last night when they got the chance to interact with 2008 Beijing Olympics epee fencing gold medallist and former world champion Britta Heidemann at a special event hosted by the Bahrain Olympic Committee (BOC) last night.
The German athlete, 40, who holds the distinction of being the only fencer in the world to have held three major titles at the same time – she won the singles world championship in 2007 and the European championship in 2009, to go along with her 2008 Olympic gold – made the young ones’ night even more special when she actually fenced with a few of the star-struck Bahrainis.
But how did Heidemann, a Cologne native, end up being invited to Bahrain where she headlined the event with BOC vice president Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa and BOC secretary general Faris Al Kooheji in attendance?
“It was all a coincidence, really,” she told the GDN in an exclusive interview after she had finished dueling with the young Bahrainis.
“I found myself sitting next to Mr Al Kooheji at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, a couple of months ago and we started talking.
“And, while we were conversing, I started checking the world rankings to see where Bahraini athletes were placed – and I found no one in the rankings. So I told him I’d be very pleased to support the sport of fencing in the kingdom.”
Now considered one of the most successful fencers ever, Heidemann gravitated towards the sport purely by chance when, at the age of 14, having already made a name for herself as a young track-and-field athlete and swimmer of immense promise, she tried out a variation of the modern pentathlon – which includes fencing.
But it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the 5’11” Heidemann, not yet 18 then, started to specialise in fencing.
Her rise, thereafter, was meteoric: merely a year later, Heidemann became epee junior world vice-champion and junior European champion. And, over the next six years, she achieved podium finishes wherever she competed until she became the world champion in 2007, starting her remarkable three-major-titles spree.
“It was always my dream to get really successful in sports from a really early age but I never thought I’d become an Olympic champion,” Heidemann, who became a member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes Commission in 2016, laughed.
“But I always wanted to improve day-by-day and I always felt there was room for more and more improvement and, in the end, I became one of the most successful fencers ever,” she added, still laughing but without a hint of arrogance.
“So, you know, when I held the three major titles at the same time … somehow, for me, it was never the ultimate goal but things happened one after the other.
“So, when I won the world championship, I thought to myself: ‘Maybe, you could win the Olympic gold too.’ Only, when I won that, everybody was like ‘You should quit now. What is left for you to win?’ But I got right back in the game, thinking ‘I’ll show you!’ and I won the European championship!”
More than a desire for titles and gold medals, Heidemann said, it was a unique inner drive she had that made her aspire to become even better than before in everything she did – especially fencing.
“What drew me to fencing was the fact that it is all about mental strength,” she explained.
“Before I got into this sport, I was into swimming and track-and-field and I understood that most sports are all about physical strength.
“So what I found fascinating about fencing was the mental aspect of it – if you weren’t strong enough mentally, you could be the world’s best fencer and you could still lose to everybody. So, I immediately switched to it and have never regretted it!”
And, even though Heidemann retired from the sport while still in her early thirties, her love for fencing endures even as she does important work with the IOC where she is a full member.
“As an athlete you have two lives, you start super-early with your career and when you finish at 34 or 35, you’ve already invested 20-25 years into whichever sport you chose,” she said.
“When I retired, it was really difficult for me to then adapt to the new life, I’ll tell you honestly. It’s like retiring when you’re 70 and then you suddenly don’t know what to do.”
But Heidemann found purpose in the work she does with the IOC.
“As a member of the IOC athletes commission – and full IOC member – I have worked on every topic related to athletes for the past eight years,” she explained.
“It ranges from Olympic Games experience to managing mental health to anti-doping issues.
“Also, it’s a never-ending, very interesting journey to be with the IOC and help in developing sports in different countries.”
And it was that motivation, the chance to help develop the sport she loves so much in Bahrain that brought Heidemann to the kingdom on Wednesday night.
“Honestly speaking, I was really interested in coming here to observe the level of fencing in Bahrain,” she said.
“I think it’s always nice to be able to help young athletes improve and develop and hopefully I can come back again and help them some more. I already gave them some tips and they really appreciated it.
“It was really nice to be able to provide some motivation for all these enthusiastic young athletes,” she said.
“And, in doing so, you saw me on the piste (the playing area). If I looked like I was enjoying it, that’s because I was! I loved it – that’s the first time I’ve been on it in eight years and I realised that I still have the same drive for the sport as I did when I was an active athlete.”
Heidmann will now spend the weekend taking in the sights around the kingdom before heading to Riyadh for the 2023 Saudi Games.
“Obviously, since I arrived late on Wednesday night, I haven’t really had the chance to go around this lovely country. That’s why I am spending the weekend here, so that I can take in as much of everything Bahrain has to offer as possible.”