Olympics-Fencers cross over to the catwalk

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 6 (Reuters) - A day after star model Gisele Bundchen sashayed down the middle of the opening Olympic ceremony to rapturous applause, the crowd was going crazy for another graceful, long-haired Brazilian model strutting her stuff on the fencing piste.

Nathalie Moellhausen, whose sixth-place finish on Saturday was the best ever for a Brazilian woman, has walked for Italian dressmaker Alberta Ferretti and won team gold at the 2009 world championship. She says the inspiration for both is the same.

"Everything I do in fashion is related to fencing," said Italian-born Moellhausen, wearing gold earrings of her own design in the shape of swords. "My idea is to develop fencing as not just a sport, but as an artistic form, like fashion."

She is one of several fencers at the Rio Games walking a straight line from the piste to the runway.

For some, the modeling cash has even helped to keep their fencing careers afloat.

"When I was between 20 and 23 I was also modeling, but I did it because I needed money for my fencing career and for the trips to compete," said Argentina's Maria Belen Perez Maurice.

For other fencers, the world of high fashion has also helped to extend their public profiles beyond their niche sport.

"I started it," said both Race Imboden and Miles Chamley-Watson of Team USA, independently and unprompted, when the subject came up of fencers launching careers on the runway.

It would appear that both are mistaken, as U.S. fencers Jason Rogers and Tim Morehouse started with Wilhelmina Models soon after taking team silver in Beijing.

But neither had the profile of Imboden, who has walked for Louis Vuitton, appeared in J. Crew catalogues and even appeared in a video for Rag & Bone with famed dancer and fencing fan Mikhail Baryshnikov, all since being scouted at London in 2012.

Chamley-Watson has also supplemented classic sponsorships such as Nike with modeling for Rochambeau and Ralph Lauren.

Fencing's noble history and elegant poses seem to have drawn labels' interest, along with the lissome frame of many fencers.

"We're pretty lean and pretty tall," said Imboden, weighing the appeal. "I just think we're a good looking sport." (Reporting by Brad Haynes)