Fencing: Singapore's duelling sisters buoyed by friendly rivalry

National fencers and sisters Aarya (left) and Amita Berthier will be representing Singapore at the Fencing Cadet and Junior World Championships in Bourges, France this week.
National fencers and sisters Aarya (left) and Amita Berthier will be representing Singapore at the Fencing Cadet and Junior World Championships in Bourges, France this week. PHOTO COURTESY OF UMA BERTHIER

As she stepped up to the piste, posture adopted and weapon raised, an unusual feeling engulfed national fencer Aarya Berthier.

Standing opposite her, with the same trepidation, was her beloved younger sister Amita, similarly poised to strike.

Aarya, 17, won that bout at the 2014 Taipei Fencing Open. She recalled: "It felt awful initially, having to deal with the idea of fencing (against) your own sister... (the prospect of) losing was not the terrible thing to deal with, but having to defeat one's sister was something we don't look forward to."

Last month, Amita, 15, beat her sister by a single point in the last 16 of the Asian Cadet and Junior Fencing Championship women's cadet individual (foil) en route to winning Singapore's first-ever gold in that event in Manama, Bahrain.

Amita, a Singapore Sports School student, said: "We have quite bad luck, as we meet each other quite often. She generally does better in senior and local competitions, while I do better in international, U-17 and U-20 competitions."

Amita is ranked first in both the cadet and junior categories, with Aarya second in both. Intriguingly, the reverse is true for the senior national team, with Aarya (second) ranked higher than Amita (sixth).

They are two of 39 participants representing Singapore at the Fencing Cadet and Junior World Championships, which start tomorrow in Bourges, France. Ambitious as ever, Amita, who reached the top 16 in last year's edition, is aiming to crack the top eight this time.

STRENGTH IN SISTERHOOD

I always feel stronger knowing that my sister is with me on this journey... we marvel at each other's sense of the sport.

AARYA BERTHIER, national fencer, on competing together with her sister, Amita.

As strong as their competitive spirit is, the rivalry has been a positive one for the siblings. They made the switch from football in 2007, after chancing upon the Z Fencing academy at United Square Mall.

Because Amita is left-handed and Aarya right-handed, the former said: "We are able to teach each other the skill set the other possesses and how best to take on an opponent accordingly.

"During competitions, we can share our own mental notes when going up against other opponents. We act as each other's checks and balances."

Training and competing together has also strengthened their relationship as the youngest members of the family, after elder brother Ashok, 27, and sister Aishwarya, 24.

Aarya, a Raffles Institution student, said: "I always feel stronger knowing that my sister is with me on this journey... we marvel at each other's sense of the sport and are grateful that we can draw on how we think individually and share good pointers."

The Berthiers' father, Eric, died after a fall at his workplace just three weeks before the Asian Championships last month. He was 51.

Amita said: "It came as a shock to all of us... now that is what drives me - win or lose, I just want to fence well for him, that's all that matters as I know he'll be proud."

Their mother Uma, a 51-year-old research consultant, accompanies them on most of their travels.

As her daughters set their sights on competing at the 2020 or 2024 Olympic Games, she said: "I want to be a part of their learning journey in their fencing experience. I want to be their greatest fan, their parent, their friend when they need one, to listen to their woes or to share their victory when there is one.

"Most of all, I am just a mum who is on the sidelines, watching them enjoy the sport they are passionate about."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'Fencing sisters buoyed by friendly rivalry'. Print Edition | Subscribe