SINGAPORE – Five years ago, Amita Berthier took a leap of faith and packed her bags for Indiana to hone her fencing skills at the University of Notre Dame.
The 22-year-old has since won three SEA Games golds, a team bronze at the 2018 Asian Games and earned a historic qualification to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
On Sunday, Berthier helped Notre Dame secure a third straight team title at the United States National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) fencing championships, and claimed her fourth individual medal – a bronze – in the women’s foil.
It was also a final hurrah at the NCAA for her before she dons her graduation gown in May. She is planning to train full time for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Berthier told The Straits Times: “It has not been easy for me – I missed my home, family, comfort food, the weather and all things familiar. Straddling intensive training and studies as a full-time student is tremendous. It is tiring, hectic and, at times, draining.
“Every year, it gets tougher – everyone is fighting for the title. So there is immense pressure going into the game... to fight your hardest and to keep the title and make history. To win it three times in a row – it is joy, it is a sense of honour and pride that you will carry with you for a long time to come.”
For now, the sociology undergraduate is relishing the prospect of trading her books for her blade. With the one-year Olympic qualification window opening in April, she is aiming to earn direct entry to the Paris Games via her world ranking – she needs to be among the top two fencers in the Asia-Oceania region.
She qualified for the Tokyo Games by winning the regional qualification tournament, but was knocked out in the round of 32 by eventual champion Lee Kiefer.
While she will skip the SEA Games in Cambodia for a second edition running due to school exams, she is gearing up for the Hangzhou Asian Games in September.
She won a team bronze in Jakarta five years ago but was knocked out in the round of 16 in the individual foil event. After her stint in the US, she hopes her experience will serve her better in China.
She said: “Being in the US has definitely helped me as a competitive fencer. The numbers are huge in terms of sparring partners. Notre Dame has one of the best facilities for student athletes and there are all sorts of competitions you can go to locally and compete against some amazing fencers.
“I am hoping that this experience will keep making me a better fencer and be ready for the Asian Games.”
Fencing Singapore’s technical director Marko Milic said the federation would do “whatever is necessary” to support Berthier’s pursuits.
He added: “We’re working hard together with the Singapore Sports Institute to build up a strong training environment in Singapore. In the future, we hope to provide more choices for our athletes, not just Amita. While they still can consider the US as an option, we also want to make sure there are good conditions for them to develop their fencing in Singapore.”
Berthier, who has lived alone in the US since she was 17, has some advice for those looking to follow in her footsteps.
“You must be prepared to be dogged, forget about having a normal social life, make friends who can support you, be strong and not miss being away from home too much,” she said.
“It must come from deep within you. Not from your parents, not from external parties, but all about what you want out of this journey.”