Tan Xue didn't have to rattle or swish her saber to attract attention at the Party's recent 17th national congress: The 23-year-old was the youngest of the more than 2,200 delegates and a full 73 years younger than the oldest, Fang Qiang, who has been a member for 80 years.
China's No 1 women's fencer stood out in other ways, too. Her eye-catching red-and-white sporty outfit was a sharp contrast to the mostly gray or black suits; and her carefully tinted long hair had more than a trace of the generation born in the 1980s.
"I felt extremely proud and honored to be part of such an important gathering with much more senior and experienced delegates," Tan said.
"The experience here is so unique and very different from my normal life as an athlete," she said with a smile. "Typically, I spend most of my time training; but here, I spent most of the time learning."
The world's top woman saber fencer has notched up great achievements in her short but glorious sporting career.
She switched from hurdling to fencing at the age of 16 and soon became the youngest Chinese and Asian fencing champion, winning the women's saber event at the national and Asian championships a year later.
At 18, she was China's first-ever fencing world champion with a gold medal at the 2002 World Championships. She should have won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games after eliminating several top-ranked opponents but lost her focus in the final against Mariel Zagunis of the United States to settle for a silver medal.
Despite such an outstanding track record, Tan was unprepared when she was told she was elected a delegate from Tianjin, a city with a strong sports tradition which has produced numerous sports stars.
"I was surprised because I am so young," she said. "I am happy that my achievements are recognized by others."
She called her debut in the all-important political conclave a "good learning curve".
"I am sure I learnt a lot of things by attending such an assembly at such a young age," she said.
The strapping athlete said she feels more inspired to win a gold medal at the Beijing Olympic Games next year.
After Frenchman Christian Bauer joined the Chinese camp as coach last year, Tan has shown dazzling form this season by winning five consecutive titles beginning with the World Cup. She also won a silver at the World Championships in St. Petersburg just before the congress.
"Competing in the Olympics is a dream for every athlete," she said. "I am looking forward to a breakthrough in the 2008 Games."
She has set her sights firmly on gold medals in Beijing, both at the saber individual and team events.
"I am my biggest rival. I need to play my best."
Tan was one of the 27 delegates from the sports arena who comprise some renowned athletes and coaches such as Olympic table tennis champion Zhang Yining from Beijing, Olympic shooting champion Du Li from Shandong and Sun Haiping, coach of 110m hurdles Olympic champion and world record holder Liu Xiang.