SINGAPORE - Elle Koh cannot remember a time when she was not fencing, so much so that her family jokes that she was born in a mask.
The 14-year-old has been fencing for over a decade but this should come as no surprise as it is in her blood.
Her parents are Fencing Singapore president Juliana Seow and national partner coach for epee Henry Koh, both former national fencers who now run a fencing outfit, Blade Club. Her younger sister Summer, nine, also fences.
The first floor of the Koh household, where club training is conducted, is filled with enough equipment to loan to students who train there as well as to multiple schools for their fencing co-curricular activity.
Elle has grown up around the sport - her mother, she discovered, used to bring her along for her coaching sessions in schools when she was a baby, but her earliest memories of the sport are from when she first started fencing at four.
Back then, she was already fencing at least twice a week over the weekends, but she would ask to join other classes earlier in the week, often practising with those older and bigger than her.
She began to compete at 11 and has shown signs of promise by claiming several podium finishes in the handful of open competitions over the past two years.
This month, the Secondary 3 Raffles Girls' School student will appear on one of the biggest stages of her sporting career when she makes her SEA Games debut in Hanoi, where she will be the second-youngest athlete in Singapore's contingent of 427. Only diver Max Lee, who is also 14, is younger by two months.
"I hope it will be a great learning experience that will contribute to my fencing career," said Elle.
Being one of the younger ones at competitions means that the 1.64m tall teen often finds herself up against taller opponents. At a recent overseas tournament, there was a Polish fencer who was nearly 1.9m and Elle's height and reach disadvantage requires her to find inventive ways to win her bouts.
For example, Elle tries to surprise opponents by taking the blade - a movement in fencing in which a fencer takes the opponent's blade into a line and holds it there in preparation to attack. This, she says, is not typical of epee fencers.
But the challenge of sparring against bigger fencers is exactly why she loves the sport.
Elle, who enjoys solving sudoku puzzles, said: "You have to get very creative in thinking of ways to fence and surprise your opponent. It is extremely tactical, especially in competition because there are so many other factors."
Her passion for fencing and ambition have contributed to Elle's rise in the sport. By 12, she knew she wanted to make the national team once she turned 13 and was eligible for open competitions.
After finishing joint-third at the 2021 Singapore Senior Challenge in January last year, which was a competition that counted towards SEA Games qualification, Elle decided to work towards qualifying for the regional meet.
That was also when the teenager, who had been competing in both the foil and epee, decided to prioritise epee training over the next year in her bid to make the Games.
The SEA Games will be her third overseas competition and the few foreign tournaments Elle has been to so far have been eye-opening experiences for her. At April's 2022 World Junior & Cadet Fencing Championships in Dubai, which was just her second overseas competition, she struggled to cope with a pressure she had never experienced before.
Moments like these are difficult for the competitive teen, who finds it hard to accept defeat. "From the competition I can also see how I can improve - you go for a competition, you lose, you learn, you improve, and then you strive to do better next time," said Elle.
Last year, she also suffered her first major injury, inuring both her knees due to excessive lunging. It left her unable to fence properly for two months. That was an important reminder for Elle, as it "taught me to take care of myself and be patient with my own body".
Now that she has gotten a taste of international competitions, she is hungry for more and hopes to eventually make it to the Olympics.
She looks up to teammate Kiria Tikanah, who competed at last year's Tokyo Olympics after becoming just the second Singapore fencer to qualify for the Games.
Elle's father, who is also her coach, said: "I believe she has the capability and tenacity to go as far as she wants to, but ultimately it's up to her. She's realised that she can reach a higher level than she thought she could when she was younger.
"She's still so young, she's got easily another 10 years if she wants to - even Kiria hasn't reached her peak yet - so it's up to her to see where she wants to go, and if my daughter wants to do it, I'm happy to support her all the way."
Name: Elle Koh
Date of birth: Sept 6, 2007
2021: Singapore Senior Challenge (3rd)
2022: Singapore Senior Challenge (2nd), Singapore Senior Championships (1st)
Special talent: Crocheting
Favourite food: I LOVE gummies