‘I owe everything to my mum and dad’: A Singaporean fencer makes history and keeps an Olympics promise
In the first of a series of profiles of TeamSG competitors who have qualified for next month's Olympic Games, CNA speaks to a fencer who made history for Singapore at the age of 20.
SINGAPORE: The fencer faces her opponent, a blade’s edge from defeat.
Her Olympics hopes hang in the balance.
And so, under her breath, she seeks divine intervention.
With the score standing at 13-14 - a point away from defeat - all Amita Berthier can do at that moment is pray for one more chance to prove herself.
To add to her agony, the 20-year-old is injured.
Just a few points earlier, a parry from Berthier’s opponent struck her ankle, re-aggravating an injury she picked up in the semi-final, and sending her sprawling.
Yet, Berthier is determined not to show any signs of weakness.
“I just didn't want her to think that she had the upper hand because she's scored four points in a row,” she told CNA.
And so knees bent, weapon readied, prayer completed, she waits.
“‘Allez!’”’ cries the umpire.
‘IN ANYTHING I DO, I WANT TO WIN’
To understand Berthier, you must first understand that she hates losing.
Her competitiveness is a trait she believes she inherited from her mother Uma, a former runner, and her late father Eric, who did judo and a number of other sports.
“I think it's because both my parents were also sportspeople so ... this kind of also runs in my genes,” she said.
“I’m pretty competitive when it comes to a lot of things, especially like card games with my family … Anything I do, I want to win.”
Whenever members of the Berthier household meet up during holidays or breaks, card games usually get the competitive juices flowing.
“The thing that gets us to ‘fight’ the most is either UNO or Monopoly. Our entire family would just be quarrelling over the smallest things … We’ll steal money from one of my sisters and when she's not looking and then she finds out, all these shenanigans (happen),” Berthier said with a laugh.
Berthier and her sister Aarya were first introduced to fencing when they were in primary school.
“It was just by chance because I was playing soccer before fencing and I went to RGPS (Raffles Girls’ Primary School) where soccer wasn’t offered as a CCA (co-curricular activity). So I had to find another one,” she recalled.
So she took up fencing instead.
“It's such a fun sport. There obviously are rules, but you can make up your own actions … You’re fighting against someone - to me as a seven-year-old, it was an amazing sport, my dream sport,” she added.
But it was one of her former coaches, Ralf Bissdorf, a silver medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games, who helped fan the flames of Olympics interest.
"Just having him coach me was obviously an inspiration and something that I looked up to because I was like: ‘Wow he went to the Olympics, he had such a formidable record in his fencing career and he's coaching me’,” said Berthier of Bissdolf, who first coached her at local academy Z fencing.
“I think that’s what planted my interest in the Olympics and wanting to take fencing to a higher stage in my life, actually taking it seriously,” she added.
“He would share about his experience - he became Olympic silver medalist the year that I was born too, which was super cool. I was like: ‘Woah it's meant to be’.”
After she graduated from the Singapore Sports School, Berthier and her parents made the decision that she would move to the United States to train full-time in 2016.
“In the beginning, it was very hard,” she recalled. “Coming to the US at such a young age and having to live alone (and) then living with a host family, it was like a bit of a change.”
Homesickness was a bit of a struggle at times, added Berthier.
“There were days that I really missed home a lot. But I think my mom and my friends and family back home did a very, very good job of checking in on me and making me feel like I was still at home even though I was not.”
But with the added help of a gracious host family, Berthier adapted to her new environment.
“I stayed with an Asian host family. They were so welcoming and they were very kind and super nice. I stayed with them for like a year, a year and a half.”
As she continued to hone her craft, Berthier’s stock continued to rise, with bronze at the World Junior and Cadet Championships, gold in the SEA Games women's singles foil, silver at the Guatemala Junior World Cup and gold at the Havana Junior World Cup.
All this happened in one year - 2017.
Berthier enrolled in Notre Dame University in 2018, before taking a gap year from August 2019 to train full-time as she tried to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
Then came the news that the Olympics had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It wasn’t really a waste. Obviously I was disappointed when I heard about it, because it was so close. But I just took it as another opportunity. It gave me more time to prepare, to really figure out what was my best fencing style,” she recalled.
Berthier returned to school in mid-2019 and resumed juggling her studies with training.
All this in the face of a pandemic that has shown no signs of letting up, and as calls for the Games to be postponed or cancelled continued to echo.
“I took a year - a gap year from school - to qualify for the Olympics and the Olympics didn't happen. So for a while it's ... having to … still believe in my dream and telling myself that even though it got cancelled like last year doesn't mean it's gonna get cancelled this year,” she explained.
“There's just all that doubt - is the Olympics going to happen, is it not going to happen?”
But she was determined to ignore the noise.
“I just didn’t want all of it to get to my head. I just wanted to focus on me and my fencing - my goal … is to qualify for the Olympics. Until it is official that the Olympics are cancelled, that’s what I’m going for - aiming for the Olympics, worrying about nothing else.”
VICTORY IN SIGHT
Back at the qualifying event, and Berthier fends off her opponent's attack and lands the crucial touch. She clenches her fist and wheels away in triumph. She levels the score.
She needs one more point to clinch victory.
Her Uzbek opponent whips off her mask to take a quick breather. She is fencing on home turf, but nerves are jangling.
“She took the time to get ready and all that and I knew she was very nervous. I was nervous too but I was trying my best not to show it,” Berthier recalled.
“‘Allez!’”’ cries the umpire.
It comes down to this.
A SHARED DREAM
Making the Olympics is as much for her family as it is for Berthier. Her mother Uma, for one, is one of her biggest “inspirations”.
“I’m very close to my mum, so it has been hard not being able to go home - I haven’t been home since August last year,” revealed Berthier. “She’s been such a huge support and she’s such a huge inspiration to me because she is so strong and that’s what helps me get through my hard days.
“What I’ve dealt with is much smaller than what she’s had to deal with, and I tell myself that if she can go through it and pull through then I should be able to.”
Her late father Eric was also one of Berthier’s biggest supporters.
“He loved sports … Seeing his daughter at an international level, I think that was another (level) of excitement for him. I know that if he were still here and saw me qualify for the Olympics, he’d probably be like jumping up … being the happiest man alive.”
Her dad loved the Olympics, she recalled.
“We would always watch the Olympics together, every single sport. We’d sit there and watch it together,” she explained. “That’s also where my huge love of sports came from, because my dad was such an avid supporter of all sorts of sports.”
When Eric died in 2016, Berthier penned a note and slipped it in his coffin. In it was a promise that she would one day make the Games.
“I wrote a little note to him before he got cremated … One of my promises to him was that I would qualify for the Olympics … I want to qualify for myself but I made this promise to my dad and I want to qualify for him too.”
Berthier scores the final point.
She crumples to the ground, pumps her fists and unleashes a primal scream.
A scream of joy mingled with relief. A scream for herself, for her father, for her family.
“When I scored, it was just … like everything just kind of left my body. It was a scream, many screams of relief,” recalled Berthier.
“I didn't even know I was going to release and scream ‘Ahhhhh’, it just came out.”
Her first thought was to thank her father.
“I knew he helped me win this because I knew that the only way I was going to win this was literally with God and my dad helping me,” she recalled.
But it was not until she returned to the hotel that Berthier realised the magnitude of what she has achieved.
“Even when I was getting all these interviews after I won ... It didn't really hit me until I had time alone to myself and when I got back to the hotel room and to the shower,” said Berthier.
“And that’s really when like all my thoughts hit me because I was like: ‘Oh my God Amita, what did you just do?’”
What Berthier had done was to make history. She is Singapore's first female fencer to compete at the Olympics - compatriot Kiria Tikanah soon joined her - and is also the first local fencer to qualify outright for the event.
Yet she is keen to emphasise that the achievements are not hers alone.
“It’s been a crazy, long journey … I’m very grateful for all their support. "They didn’t know what the outcome would be like in five to 10 years. The fact that they had so much faith and so much support for me, I owe everything to my mum and dad," she explained.
"I don’t know if I would ever be able to pay them back.”
In about 40 days time, the Berthier family will once again watch the Olympics Games. They may be apart, but they will tune in from all over the world - London, New York and Singapore.
This one will be extra special because one of their own will be competing.
Berthier has kept her promise and now she is there to fulfil a dream.
For herself, for her father, for her family.