SEA Games: Teen fencer Amita Berthier proves father right

(From left) Bronze medallists Ahmad Huzaifah and Nicole Wong and gold medallist Amita Berthier.
(From left) Bronze medallists Ahmad Huzaifah and Nicole Wong and gold medallist Amita Berthier.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN WONG

KUALA LUMPUR - A lot has changed for Amita Berthier since the 2015 Singapore SEA Games.

Then 14, she was an up-and-coming fencer and a volunteer at the OCBC Arena, helping competitors carry their bags and cheering Team Singapore on.

Her father Eric knew the passion she had and pushed her to chase her dreams, telling her, “One day you’ll get there.”

Two years on, Amita has proved him right by becoming a gold medallist after with her victory in the women’s individual foil yesterday.

She beat Samantha Catantan of the Philippines 15-7 and ripped off her mask, decorated with the Singapore flag, and screamed in celebration.

It was a poignant moment she shared with her mother Uma, whose husband died after a fall at his workplace last year.

Choking back her tears, Amita said: “My mum’s here and she’s my pillar of strength. For my dad especially, I’m pretty sure he’ll be happy with the gold.”

Sacrifice is often an athlete’s bedfellow. For Amita, it meant uprooting herself from Singapore and moving alone to Boston to train with her former Singapore Sports School coach Ralf Bissdorf, a former Olympic silver medallist.

It was a tough transition for everyone involved, particularly her mother.

The 53-year-old research consultant, who has three older children – Ashok, 27, Aishwarya, 24, and Aarya, 18 – said: “Moments like this are when we cherish each other’s presence and relationship. It’s a joy to see her compete and be happy.”

She added that being away from Amita has been difficult.

“She’s like my buddy. The fun one that does all the little pranks around the house. She makes me believe in the impossible,” she said of her youngest child.

The path to gold was never going to be easy. In the semi-finals against Filipino Maxine Isabel Esteban, who held her nerve to beat Amita’s team-mate Nicole Wong 15-14 in the quarter-finals, Amita was nervous and fell behind 0-5 before regrouping to win 15-9.

She had lost to the 16-year-old at the Asian Fencing Championships in Hong Kong in June, and that defeat played on her mind.

She said: “I should have blocked it out but it got to me. Luckily I managed to reset, tell myself to treat it like it was still 0-0 and that motivated me to fence better.”

The world No. 83 carried that form into the final and dominated the 155th-ranked Catantan. Amita behind Wong (No. 78) but Bissdorf denied that meant said that did not mean the gold medal was guaranteed.

He said: “Amita had to beat the Vietnamese fencer Do Thi Anh (the 21-year-old world No. 91 who beat Amita in yesterday’s poules round) – who’s been to the Rio Olympics – in the quarter-finals. She wasn’t getting the gold for free.”

Singapore’s Wang Wenying won this event in 2015.

The 36-year-old has been on a hiatus since April last year and chose not to defend her title in Malaysia.

Her victory was Singapore’s first individual fencing gold medal in 26 years.

Singapore added two more bronze medals through Wong (foil) and Ahmad Huzaifah (men’s sabre). Both lost their respective semi-finals. There is no play-off for third.

The 17-year-old Ahmad was making his Games debut and won just one of his four bouts in the poules round but reached the knockout stage. He fell 7-15 to defending champion Vu Thanh An of Vietnam.

He called it a “milestone in my career” and said: “The next few SEA Games I hope to change this bronze into a gold.”

The three-day competition at the Malaysian Institute of Industrial Technology Hall 6 continues today with the men’s individual foil and women’s individual epee.