SINGAPORE - Before the pandemic began, Maxine Wong and her national fencing teammates travelled almost every month - sometimes twice in a month - to train or compete abroad.
That came to a grinding halt in early 2020 with the shuttering of borders all over the world. In fact, foilist Wong was in the United States in March that year preparing to take part in the Anaheim leg of a Grand Prix tournament, but cut her trip short and returned to the Republic after the competition was scrapped.
As 2021 draws to a close, her long wait for high-level international competition has ended. The 20-year-old is among eight Singaporean fencers who have travelled to France to compete in the Saint-Maur leg of the fencing World Cup, from Friday (Dec 10) to Sunday.
"In the past, at times it got tiring," said Wong. "But the very long break has made me miss travelling and international competitions, and I'm excited to get back to (that routine)."
The weekend's competition is the first world-level competition for most of Singapore's fencers since the pandemic began, and the first high-level one since a continental Olympic qualification tournament in Uzbekistan in July.
National body Fencing Singapore has organised a number of local competitions in a bid to keep its athletes sharp.
German fencers - world No. 42 Anne Sauer, 30, and No. 145 Kim Kirschen, 25 - also arrived to spar with local athletes on a week-long stint in September, after the country established a vaccinated travel lane with Singapore.
But national head coach Andrey Klyushin said adapting to the standard required of a World Cup will not be easy.
"I'm not expecting incredible results (in France)... but what is important for our girls is to feel what it's like to fence at the international level again," said the Russian.
In Saint-Maur, Wong, Denyse Chan, 18, Chloe Ng, 19, and Kemei Cheung, 16, will take part in the team competition.
The team are without the Republic's top fencer Berthier, the US-based world No. 52, who has school commitments at the Notre Dame University, but Klyushin said Wong - the next highest-ranked foilist at 132 - can be a "leader" for the young quartet. He has set them a target of placing in the top 16.
"Some of these athletes were fencing at the junior level, and because of the long break they are now jumping to the seniors, which is absolutely different," said the coach. "They will need to adapt mentally."
The quartet will also take part in the individual competition, along with four other Singapore foilists - Melanie Huang, 38, Tay Yu Ling, 34, Emily Chai, 22, and Tiffany Seet, 17. Huang was a part of the bronze-winning quartet at the 2018 Asian Games, while Tay was part of the gold-winning quartet at the 2005 SEA Games.
Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, Klyushin has already set clear goals for his athletes in 2022 - gold medals in both the team and individual events at the SEA Games in Hanoi in May, as well as a good showing in the team event at September's Asian Games in Hangzhou.
Wong, however, is simply content to soak in the atmosphere of competition again for now. While she was required to undergo an antigen rapid test - self-administered tests are not valid - before beginning training in France, movement for Wong in Paris has been quite relaxed after converting her vaccination certificate at a local pharmacy and downloading France's 'TousAntiCovid' contact tracing app, required to dine in restaurants.
The 2019 SEA Games individual silver medallist said: "When we first started having local competitions again, I felt a little bit nervous, because training can be monotonous and competitions are definitely more intense.
"But I managed to work through that and so getting back to the groove of things, now at the international level too, is something I'm really looking forward to."