Amita shines, Shanti next?

Two athletes with Indian heritage could be Singapore's darlings at the ongoing SEA Games in the Philippines.

Fencer Amita Berthier, whose mother is Indian, won the women's individual foil on Wednesday. In the coming days, sprinter Shanti Pereira is well set to reclaim the 200m gold she lost in Kuala Lumpur two years ago and also win the 100m race.

A left-ankle sprain threatened to derail Amita's SEA Games campaign on Wednesday.

But the 18-year-old did not let the pain stop her from beating compatriot Maxine Wong 15-10 to retain the gold she won in Kuala Lumpur two years ago. Wong, also 18, had led 3-1 and then 10-9, before Berthier called for the doctor to attend to her left ankle, which she had sprained during the warm-up.

After treatment, the former world junior No. 1 took six consecutive points to turn defeat into victory at the World Trade Center in Manila.

"When I was trailing, I decided to be more defensive", the United States-based fencer, who turns 19 on Dec 15, said. "Mentally, I was like okay, since I can't do my full lunge and my attack is the best part of my fencing, I need to trust my defence and find ways to score points and just stay calm.

"In the beginning, I should have taken my time to set up the right timing for an attack. Coming in, my aim was to win the gold. I wasn't going to let my ankle sprain stop me."

Berthier, whose celebration was limited to just one silent fist pump during her win, added: "I had no energy to really scream, and also it's not the nicest thing to do, shouting at every point against your own teammate."

The win was bittersweet for Berthier, as she had to face Wong in the final.

"Of course it's always tough to compete against Maxine, but there's no better time to bring (out) my best than in the final," she said.

Wong, whose journey to the final was marred by a knee injury at this year's World Championships, praised Amita's effort. "After (the 10-9 lead)... my endurance kind of ran out. We've fenced each other many times, we know each other's mistakes and tactics and I guess that's both the advantage and disadvantage.

"As her teammate, I wish (her injury) hadn't happened because it would've been good to have a full match where both of us were fine but, to respect her as a competitor, I still gave my best."

Coach Marko Milic was overjoyed with the girls' performances.

"Both girls exceeded my expectations. I'm really proud of them," he said. "For Amita to (retain) her gold, and for Maxine to recover from surgery."

Shanti crumbled under the heavy weight of expectation in Kuala Lumpur, where the defending champion lost her 200m crown to Vietnam's Le Tu Chinh (23.32sec). The Singaporean (23.68sec) had to settle for bronze behind Malaysia's Husniah Zulkifli (23.64sec).

But the 23-year-old is determined to do well this time. After the debacle in KL, she took some time off to clear her head. She had strategy discussions with her elder sister, former national sprinter Valerie, and regrouped under the guidance of her coach Margaret Oh.

But she suffered a grade-two hamstring tear in the 100m final of the Singapore Open in April last year and a recurrence two months later left her with little time to train for the 100m and 200m at the Asian Games in Jakarta.

Her confidence sank to a new low after the injury and she said: "I remember walking to the back of the stadium, sitting down and bawling my eyes out after the first injury. Before that, I felt ready for the national record (200m) and that's why I had such a big reaction."

Support from Oh and her loved ones saw her pulling her socks up. She bounced back in record-breaking fashion at the Asian Championships in April. She bettered her 11.73sec in the 100m with a 11.58sec in the heats to rank eighth overall and make the semi-finals.

Her 100m time is the fastest in South-east Asia this year, ahead of Thailand's Supawan Thipat (11.62sec) and Indonesia's Alphina Tehupeiory (11.64sec). Vietnam's defending SEA Games champion Chinh is fifth-fastest with a 11.67sec from the Asian Championships.

Oh, who has coached Shanti since she was a teen sprinter at the Singapore Sports School, is "praying" for her protege to do well in the Philippines.

"She's built up her endurance and is much better now, stronger and faster," Oh said. "I pray every day that she will do well and, if she is able to win two gold medals, I will be very happy and I can retire!"

Shanti too is hoping to shed tears of joy instead in Clark.

"My first goal is to get a national record for both my events and the second is to win a medal. Gold for both is what I'm working towards," she said.

The Straits Times

"My first goal is to get a national record for both my events and the second is to win a medal. Gold for both is what I'm working towards."

- Sprinter Shanti Pereira

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