Amita Berthier lost her biggest supporter, but that did not stop her from becoming a SEA Games gold medallist.
The 16-year-old’s father Eric died suddenly at the age of 51 last year. With his passing, Amita was deprived of her chief cheerleader.
Dad, after all, was a big supporter of his four children’s sporting pursuits. As an Arsenal fan, he enrolled Amita and her older sister Aarya in the JSSL Singapore football academy and bought Gunners’ jerseys for them. Amita was then five while Aarya was a year older.
The girls have two older siblings – brother Ashok, 27, and sister Aishwarya, 24, who work in New York and London respectively.
When Amita was seven, she attended Raffles Girls’ Primary School, but it did not offer football as a co-curricular activity.
The family chanced upon fencing academy Z Fencing when on an outing at Novena. Intrigued, they went in to give it a try and Amita fell in love with the sport.
As her fledgling career started to take off, Eric, she revealed, supported her in ways small and big. He would play the role of chauffeur, taking her from the Singapore Sports School (SSP) in Woodlands to her training sessions at the OCBC Arena in Kallang and at Z Fencing.
Before that, he would buy chicken rice and soya bean milk from the coffee shop near the school to ensure she had her meals before training.
He was also her alarm clock, giving her morning calls at 5.45am to wake her up at the SSP dormitory when she had early morning gym training sessions.
“It was like a ritual,” the affable teenager recalled with a chuckle on Thursday. “And whenever I had late-night cravings, he would get gummy bears or ice cream just to make me happy.”
Her mother Uma added: “We have a husband, a father, who was always invested in what the kids were interested in.”
When he died from a workplace fall, the family were shattered. “There was nothing going through my mind. Fencing was the last thing on my mind,” said Amita.
His loss was a struggle for her.
“In the beginning, when it struck me that he would never be coming home any more,” she added. “That was the reality I had to accept.”
Two days before Eric’s untimely death, he and Uma had approved the idea of allowing Amita to quit school to train full-time in the United States at the Marx Fencing Academy.
The plan was for her to continue training in Boston under former SSP coach Ralf Bissdorf, an Olympic silver medallist who had coached her since she was 10.
Amita added: “I knew that if I wanted a medal at the World Junior and Cadet Championships, I would have to lay off something to get there. In my case, it was schooling.”
Her parents had approved because, as Uma said: “Eric liked the girls to dream.” After all, he had planned to take them to the Rio Olympics last year, so they could see the very best in the business.
The move to the US sounded so simple and straightforward. But Amita confessed that she was quite apprehensive ahead of her move in January. It would mean leaving her family and friends behind.
“I went there with zero friends, and I was worried because I was going to enter a new family environment (with a host family) and I would be extremely homesick,” she said. “Would they like me? Do I have to act or could I be comfortable just being myself?”
Despite her initial fears, she settled in quickly with her host family of four, who are native Chinese.
They too have become huge supporters of her career, with her “Chinese mum” even shedding tears when Amita, who is mixed French-Indian and learnt Malay, finished fifth at the USA Fencing National Championships in July.
As the only girl training among boys in a group of about 20 fencers aged between 15 and 22 at the academy, Amita had to evolve.
She said: “I had to adapt to their speed and keep up with their stamina and footwork. Naturally, it has made me faster and mentally stronger. My fencing style has also changed, I’m fencing more like how a guy would fence.”
The move to the US has borne fruit on the fencing piste. In April, she won a bronze at the World Junior and Cadet Championships, becoming only the second Singaporean to win a medal at the event.
In July, she became the first Singaporean to advance to the last 32 at the World Championships.
Then came the SEA Games women’s singles foil gold two weeks ago.
The left-handed Amita wears two rings on her right ring finger, one of them a birthday gift from Eric two years ago. It is the last birthday present she had from him and a constant reminder of him.
But, these days, she chooses to look forward, not back. And an Olympic medal is on her radar.
Amita said: “I never forget my dad and he’s always on my mind whenever I compete. But I’ve learnt not to be so emotional because of it and let it affect my fencing.
“I felt like I’ve improved a lot over the past few months because a legend is my coach. But I know that I’ve not reached my fullest potential yet.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline ‘A gold medal in her father’s memory’.