Amita Berthier: Fencer driven by hunger to win

by Rohit Brijnath, first published in The Straits Times

Amita Berthier, the world junior No. 3 fencer, listens to high-tempo music before she competes.PHOTO: FIE/BIZZI

Few people get more out of life than athletes, a driven tribe who personify a set of virtues that we could all learn from. This week, The Sunday Times explores competitiveness with world junior No. 3 fencer Amita Berthier in the final feature of a six-part weekly series brought to you by DBS Bank

She has no superstitions, no lucky charm, nothing that she's attached to except the folding frame of photographs which sits on her side table as memory and inspiration. Photographs which no teenager should have to carry. Photographs of the father she lost two years ago. Photographs that she kisses every time she leaves the room for an event.

Then the door closes and the child becomes the competitor that her father loved. Amita Berthier, 17, fencing world junior No. 3 and junior World Cup champion in Havana last year, loses her girlish smile and puts on her mask. Not the protective, steel-mesh one, but the stern, unblinking look she wears on her face.

Already she's watched videos of the kinetic Conor McGregor and listened to "high-tempo, fast music", maybe rap or Spanish stuff, and she's in the right place and in the right mood.

Foil in hand. Ready to duel.

No one knows how far Berthier will go for success cannot be read from tea leaves. You can't tell how much she might win, but what you can tell is that she wants to win. If her sensitivity is evident, then her hunger is undisguised. On the piste, she's attached to a wire yet competes as if charged with electricity.

"The idea of competition excites me," she says. "It's something to look forward to. It creates an opportunity to track my ability, to see what I have learnt, to push myself higher and better."

What we must only imagine because we will never hear is the crucial, insistent, brave voice in the athlete's head during competition. A voice that refuses to let them back down, which urges them past exhaustion and through pain and into single-mindedness. A voice of pure, undistilled, lovely competitiveness.

In Serena Williams' book, Queen Of The Court, she writes this note to herself: "Tell me 'No' and I'll show U I can! Tell me 'No' because I can. Tell me 'No'. Go ahead, tell me. Just tell me I can't win. Just tell me it's out of reach. Come on, I'll prove U wrong! Just tell me 'No' and watch what happens."

This is what separates athletes from us, this defiance that simmers under their thin skin. Michael Jordan was sick and staggering with the flu in 1997, but scored 38 points. Maria Sharapova was only a child, in the 10 and under category, but already an implacable competitor. "Even then," she wrote in her book, "I tried to set myself apart. No emotion. No fear. Like ice."

This is the hate-to-lose gang and Berthier - and all the Singapore athletes I met for this series - is a card-carrying junior member. Everyone learns to lose, learns people can be better, learns to shake hands afterwards, but they don't have to like to lose. "I just hate losing, unless I lose to someone really good," says Berthier. "I always want to know I gave 100 per cent."

She's already tasted the toughest job in sport, which is colliding with a sibling in competition. The heavyweight boxing brothers, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, had to promise their mother they would never fight in a ring. Fencing is less bloody and brutal, but Berthier's bouts with her elder sister Aarya, also a national team member, are "heartbreaking" for their mother Uma. For Amita, they are very difficult, emotional contests, but she laughs and says: "There's no sympathy during board games at home."

Achievements

2018

  • World Junior team, Silver

2017

  • World Cadet Championships, Individual, Bronze

2017

  • SEA Games, women's foil individual, Gold

2017

  • Junior World Cup, Havana, Individual, Gold

2016

  • Asian Cadet Championships Individual and Team, Gold

 

Hunger, willpower and all those admirable things we search for in athletes, they must be coded into Berthier's genes because she's always been like this. Girl with a goal. As kids, she and Aarya were the only two girls in their JSSL football age group and she'll tell you now with a wide grin: "I wanted to prove I was not weaker. I'd do anything (to win), even break an ankle. One day, a boy got so upset, he pulled my pants down." She was six years old.

The idea of competition excites me. It's something to look forward to. It creates an opportunity to track my ability, to see what I have learnt, to push myself higher and better.

AMITA BERTHIER

But athletes know - you can't just want it more, you have to be willing to work for it more. Competitiveness is what wakes them, drives them onto rugby fields on cold Christmas days and forces rowers to practise even when their blisters bleed. There's something pure to this because the greatest competitions in sport lie in beating yourself.

In April, Berthier did a footwork test at the Singapore Sports Institute, an examination of speed involving three cones. She hadn't done this test for three months and was eager to prove she was faster than before. On her third attempt - she was supposed to have three tries - she beat her personal best.

It should have been enough, but with some athletes, it's never enough. But then to push the limits of human endeavour is to always be unfulfilled. And so Berthier had to try again because the voice in her head insisted she could be better. So she started, she flew, she sprained her ankle.

Berthier is only 17, but athletes always seem older than their years because the stress of competition forces them to grow up. Over lunch at the SportsHub, and later on a FaceTime call from Boston where she trains, she is well-mannered, punctual, charming, but always you can sense the tides of emotion that ebb and flow within her. Just listening to her talk on anger, for instance, is fascinating.

"Anger in competition helps you to a point. If I'm losing 0-6, anger can motivate me and I'll say 'I can do this.' I get angry at myself for putting myself in this position and say, 'I'm going to make a comeback.' That's good anger. Bad anger is when, at 0-6, I get frustrated and blame my blade and irrelevant factors and get angry with my coach."

Berthier, who is an athlete still under construction, admires Simona Halep's comeback, reads about Kobe Bryant to appreciate competitiveness and focus, and makes the necessary distinction between ferocity and impoliteness. "It's fine to be competitive, but not rude," she says. "You've got to respect your opponent because everyone wants to win. No one remembers you for being cocky."

But everyone remembers you for your appetite for competition. At the World Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships in April, in the individual event, Berthier defeats the higher-ranked German Leonie Ebert, a person she admires and a competitor who came to her two hours after that win and congratulated her and whose sportsmanship she hasn't forgotten.

In the team event, with Germany leading Singapore 40-38, Berthier meets Ebert again in the final bout as both nations compete for the silver. Berthier is nervous, but she will win again, 7-3, and Singapore will take silver, 45-43. And as usual, there will be many reasons for this day's victory. Form, technique, tactics, but it's also about the voice.

The competitive voice that lets her live more. The voice that tells her, "I am going to win this for Singapore. Just score this last point." The voice she responds to. The voice in her that her father loved.

 

Living more is a celebration of life itself. Here’s to the dreamers, the competitors and the champions - the ones who through character, heart and will have unlocked their potential and seized life’s opportunities. DBS – Live more, Bank less.