Fencing: Amita Berthier books Tokyo Olympics ticket after tense final in qualifying tournament

PHOTO: COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME/FENCING
Amita Berthier had earlier won five of her six pool matches, progressing into the knockout stage with the second-best record.

SINGAPORE - Amita Berthier overcame an ankle injury to become the first Singaporean fencer to qualify for the Olympic Games, after coming out tops in the women's foil at the Asia-Oceania Olympic Qualification Tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on Sunday (April 25).

The 20-year-old bested the host nation's Yana Alborova 15-14 in an incredibly tense final to earn her ticket to the Tokyo Games, which are scheduled for July 23-Aug 8.

James Wong and Ronald Tan are the only Singaporean fencers to compete at the Olympics in the foil and epee events at the Barcelona Games in 1992. But they did not have to qualify then and earned their berths by virtue of being Singapore's top fencers.

Berthier dedicated the achievement to her late father Eric, who had died in 2016 following a fall in the work place.

She told The Straits Times in a phone interview: “My first thought was, ‘Thank you daddy’.

“This was for him. I made a promise six years ago when he passed that I would get to the Olympics, and I knew he was there with me, watching over me the whole day today.”

Her mother, Uma, watching from Singapore, told ST: “She has always kept the memory of her father going within her, and she’s found solace and strength from it.

“Before this competition, I told her to just remember those happy moments and remember that he is there with you, and so am I.”

Berthier had earlier won five of her six pool matches, progressing into the knockout stage with the second-best record, behind Alborova, who had a perfect record.

She then made light work of India's Radhika Prakash Awati (15-3) in the last eight and then defeated Mona Shaito of Lebanon 15-4 in the last four, where she injured her left ankle in the dying moments.

But it could not stop her from beating Russian-born Alborova, 27, in the final.

Berthier's success in Tashkent comes on the back of a long journey paved with plenty of sacrifices.

In 2018, she packed her bags to study and hone her skills at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, the United States.

The former junior world No.1 also put off her second year of studies at Notre Dame to train full-time at the Bluegrass Fencers' Club in Lexington, Kentucky, with coach Amgad Khazbak.

In March, she claimed a bronze in the women's individual foil at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) fencing championships, helping Notre Dame to the overall title

She has also won back-to-back gold medals in the women's individual foil at the SEA Games in 2017 and 2019, and won a team foil in the latter edition as well.

“I couldn't stop crying,” said Uma, on the moment her daughter scored the winning point in Sunday's final. 

“It was a hard journey, and it still is. But she’s had great support from her university, from her coaches, friends and fellow fencers, and it felt like the whole world was behind her.”

Tears were also shed in Tashkent the day before the competition, when Berthier received a video from Joseph Engert, who coaches her when she is back in Singapore. The video featured messages of support from coaches and fellow fencers - from Japan to Egypt to Ukraine and more - whose paths she had crossed along her fencing journey.

“Yeah, that made me cry, for sure,” said Berthier with a chuckle. “Thinking about everything, I’m pretty overwhelmed and kind of out of words. This has always been my dream, but now I’m there, I feel a bit dumbfounded.”

She is joined in Uzbekistan by Simon Lee (men's epee), Kiria Tikanah (women's epee), Kevin Chan (men's foil), Jolie Lee (women's sabre) and Choy Yu Yong (men's sabre).

Choy, 23, placed sixth after he was defeated 15-7 by Uzbekistan's Mamutov Sherzod on Sunday.

The men's epee competition, featuring Simon Lee, is ongoing.