Fresh off her gold medal win in her SEA Games debut, Singaporean fencer Amita Berthier is not resting on her laurels.
After a two-week break in Singapore, the 16-year-old resumed training in Boston in early September – where she has been based since January – in preparation for another gruelling competition season.
Amita’s next stop will be London on 16 September for the first leg of the 2017-2018 FIE Junior World Cup circuit, then she will compete on the circuit every two weeks until another break in December, before resuming competition again in January.
She also needs to compete to maintain ranking points and to be one of the top 2 in Singapore in order to qualify for next year’s Asian Games.
Before this year’s SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, Amita clinched a bronze in the Under-17 category of the World Cadet Championships (Under-17) in April, a fifth-place finish in the senior category of the USA Fencing National Championships in July, and a finish in the round of 32 at the Senior World Fencing Championships that the same month, beating two Olympians in the process. It was the first time a Singaporean had advanced to the round of 32 at the world championships.
The decision to move to Boston to pursue high-performance training in fencing at the Marx Fencing Academy was not an easy one for the close-knit family, said Amita’s mother Uma, 53.
“It isn’t easy but it’s her decision. In sports I feel like the child, the one who’s playing the sport needs to take ownership of certain decisions, and then we make the most of the situation,” said the research consultant.
Amita is the youngest of her four children, and Uma splits her time between Singapore and travelling to support Amita at overseas competitions.
Last October, Amita headed to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend a training camp with Olympic silver medallist Ralf Bissdorf. She had also worked with him while studying at the Singapore Sports School.
It was following the camp that she made the decision to be based in Boston on a full-time basis. “If I wanted to be better, get stronger and faster, I realised that Boston would be the place where I could get that opportunity,” she explained.
Fighting in memory of late father
Amita credits her late father, Eric Berthier, as one of her biggest supporters in getting her involved in competitive fencing.
“He played a huge role in the reason why I’m still very competitive in fencing today. And also the reason why I want to go for major games (such as the) SEA games, Asian games (and) eventually, hopefully the Olympics.
“It’s because he started this journey and part of the reason why I want to qualify is not only for my mum but for my dad because he did a lot for me in fencing.”
As a sports enthusiast, Eric encouraged his children to participate in fencing competitions whenever they visited his hometown in France.
He died in February 2016 at the age of 51 after a workplace accident. According to Uma, their last conversation was about him wanting to bring his two daughters to Rio to watch the Olympics.
“He wanted to bring the girls to Rio. He wanted them to soak in the atmosphere and have an idea about what it was like to be in that sort of sporting environment,” said Uma.
Amita and her sister Aarya were slated to compete at the Asian Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships in Bahrain three weeks after their father’s death.
“I told the girls, you don’t have to,” said Uma. “But the two of them quite vehemently told me, ‘No, we’re going to go. This was what dad was looking forward to going to. He was planning to go with us. We want to go there and give it our best.'”
Amita ended up winning Singapore’s first-ever individual gold in the Under-17 event, while she, her sister and their teammates won the cadet team gold in the foil event. Both were historic wins in fencing for Singapore.
Amita’s historic run continued at the World Junior and Cadet Championships in Bourges, France, last April where she finished sixth out of 88 fencers in her age category.
“It was difficult, it was hard,” admitted Uma. “Going to the airport without seeing my husband there.
“He would always send us off if he’s not going, or coming back and not seeing him there because he would always welcome us back. Especially after two key competitions in a fencer’s season. It’s still hard. It’s difficult, but we’ll soldier on.”
When asked by Yahoo News Singapore if the grief ever became too overwhelming, Amita offered a mature and grounded response.
“Every competition now that I go to, I take it as a motivation to want to win it for him instead of saying, ‘Oh no, daddy has passed,'” she said.
“I can’t do anything about that now. He’s not going to come back so I’m just going to make the most of what I can and change the negative into a positive, to do him proud because I know that wherever I am, whichever competition I’ll be at, he’ll always be watching over me. I just keep my head up high.”
The teen has set her sights on qualifying for the Olympics, either in Tokyo 2020 or Paris 2024.
“I just want to keep on doing that every competition and hopefully one day make it to the Olympics and eventually hopefully manage clinch a medal. But step by step,” she said.
Besides training six days a week, Amita also does online schooling via Skype with US-based tutors to prepare for the SAT exams in November. She has set her sights on the University of Notre Dame, which has a strong women’s foil team.
Notre Dame is a nine-time national champion in fencing, most recently dominating the 2017 National Collegiate Fencing Championships in March. Former world No. 1 foilist Lee Kiefer is an alumnus of the university, and five alumni from Notre Dame represented Team USA at the Rio Olympics.
Despite all the challenges, Amita and her mother consider the sacrifices they have made to be worth it.
“The thing I like best is when she screams when she’s won,” said Uma. “I know that she’s put it all out there and when she removes the mask and when she smiles… That’s probably one of the best gifts we could have given them and for us to receive in return – the love for fencing.”