Fencing: SEA Games beckons, 12 years on, for ex-national swimmer turned fencer

Swimmer Bernardette Lee in 2005, shortly after breaking the national 200m butterfly record. She won five SEA Games medals in the pool. Lee switched to fencing during her time as a university student in Perth.
Above: Lee switched to fencing during her time as a university student in Perth.PHOTO COURTESY OF ROYAL PERTH HOSPITAL
Swimmer Bernardette Lee in 2005, shortly after breaking the national 200m butterfly record. She won five SEA Games medals in the pool. Lee switched to fencing during her time as a university student in Perth.
Above: Swimmer Bernardette Lee in 2005, shortly after breaking the national 200m butterfly record. She won five SEA Games medals in the pool. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROYAL PERTH HOSPITAL

Perth-based doctor returns for KL Games as a fencer after last competing in the pool in 2005

When Bernardette Lee ended her career as a national swimmer soon after the 2005 SEA Games in Manila, never did she imagine she would return to the biennial Games.

After all, she would move to Perth to pursue a medical degree at the University of Western Australia, when her five Games medals (two gold, one silver and two bronze) felt more like a memory of her past life.

But the 28-year-old will make her third Games appearance - after outings in 2003 and 2005 - next month in Kuala Lumpur, though she has traded swimming googles for a fencing mask after being selected as part of Singapore's 12-member fencing squad.

Lee, a doctor at the Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth, told The Straits Times it was surreal to don national colours again, and in a sport she only picked up in 2013 during her final year of medical school.

She said: "I stopped swimming in university, and had just five days of university a week, so I got bored.

"Since I stopped swimming, I wasn't used to the lack of routine, so I wanted some structure in life."

Lee tried out different sports every day, from basketball to underwater hockey, mainly because she was "fitness driven".

MAKING THE SWITCH

Most of the hard work had already been done because of my background in swimming. This made my transition easy.

BERNADETTE LEE, on the importance of sporting commitment and discipline.

She chanced upon fencing after a friend introduced it to her and soon found a coach, Mirek Zabiello, to train her. The 71-year-old Pole is one of Western Australia's top fencing coaches and still coaches Lee.

Lee said: "Most of the hard work had already been done because of my sporting background in swimming. I had the stamina, I knew about the commitments - both for time and money. This made my transition from swimming to fencing easy."

She will compete in the women's individual epee category on Aug 22 at the Malaysian Institute of Industrial Technology. She added: "I went from fencing once a week to fencing almost every day. The starting of fencing was fun, there was an exponential increase in my ability at the start.

"But as I got better my expectations went up, and that's where the difficulty comes in."

Ranked 380th in the world in the 2014-15 season for epee, Lee is now 196th and ranked eighth in South-east Asia. Her best result was finishing sixth at the St Duje's Cup in May, an International Fencing Federation satellite event.

She will be one of four newcomers in Singapore's fencing team, alongside Amita Berthier, 16, Ahmad Huzaifah, 17, and Jet Ng, 19.

Ahmad said: "I'll just try to do my best, since it's my first SEA Games. I'll try to make a statement, make a good presentation for myself."

Singapore bagged three gold, three silver and seven bronze fencing medals at the 2015 edition on home soil.

While she is no stranger to the pressures of major Games, Lee admitted to feeling nervous ahead of her debut as a fencer and was circumspect about her chances of finishing on the podium.

Lee said: "All I wanted was to fence and see where I am, I would have never thought about competing in the SEA Games again."

"If anything, this SEA Games will help my growing as a better person and athlete."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'SEA Games beckons, 12 years on'. Print Edition | Subscribe