Former Olympic fencer James Wong dies aged 70, Latest Others News - The New Paper

Former Olympic fencer James Wong dies aged 70

When national fencer Amita Berthier received confirmation that she had qualified for the Paris Olympics in March, her former coach James Wong was one of the first few people she shared the news with. She knew that he had stayed up to hear from her.

After returning from the United States where she had earned her Olympic ticket, Berthier also rushed straight from Changi Airport to the hospice to visit Wong, who had been battling late-stage cancer. She did not want to delay what could be a last meeting with her former mentor.

At the hospice, the former national fencer still recognised Berthier, calling her by her nickname “Mighty Mouse” which he had coined more than a decade ago in reference to her small build and feisty spirit. He also shared some words of encouragement and held her hand.

It is a memory that Berthier will hold on to, as Wong died on April 7 at the age of 70.

Paying tribute to Wong, the 23-year-old said: “He truly was one of a kind. From young, he made us believe that anything was possible.

National fencer Amita Berthier paid tribute to her former coach James Wong on Instagram Stories. PHOTO: AMITHA BERTHIER/INSTAGRAM

“We all definitely looked up to him. He was a great mentor and he was someone who made us believe that even though we may come from a small country, it doesn’t mean we can’t achieve greatness like the other countries have.”

Wong, along with compatriot Ronald Tan, became the first two fencers to represent Singapore at the Olympics when they featured at the 1992 Barcelona Games. They did not have to go through qualification then.

In Spain, he competed in the foil and epee events. Wong was also a multiple silver medallist at the SEA Games and continued contributing to the sport after he retired.

He was one of the co-founders of Z Fencing, Singapore’s first fencing club, which was set up in 1993 and has produced some of the country’s top fencers such as Berthier.

Wong also served as a national coach and vice-president at Fencing Singapore.

One of Z Fencing’s founders, Wong Toon King, recalled with a laugh how Wong got involved with the school. Toon King had initially set up Z Fencing with fellow national fencers Mak Chee Wah and Teo Ah Heok. But they included Wong after he called them to ask why he had not been invited to come on board.

Toon King remembers Wong as someone with a steely determination. Despite going into competitions with various knee and back ailments from his training regimen, Wong always persevered through the pain, earning him the moniker “Viking”.

He was always passionate about the sport. When Toon King co-founded the fencing club at Raffles Junior College in 1983, Wong was among several coaches who would come by on Saturdays to jump-start the programme.

Such was Wong’s love for fencing that Toon King and his co-founders often joked that he knew only three places in his life: his house, his gym and Z Fencing.

The 57-year-old said: “He’s larger than life in our fencing world in Singapore for many decades. He’s always been very interested in people and believes in everyone.

“It takes someone to really believe and put in the effort at the beginning, especially in the early stages. He put in his heart and soul every day.”

National fencer Jet Ng noted that Wong cared for his charges not just on the piste, but off it as well.

The 25-year-old credited Wong for instilling a sense of self-belief in him. He said: “He believed in me even before I could believe in myself and because he showed so much support and so much effort in order to train me, I started to believe in myself as well.”

Others in the fraternity also honoured one of the sport’s most prominent figures.

Singapore National Olympic Council president Grace Fu said: “His contribution to fencing in Singapore was immeasurable... He blazed the trail for the Singapore fencing community to compete at the highest level of sport. James’ legacy will be remembered by the many people he mentored, groomed and coached.”

Fencing Singapore president Juliana Seow added: “As a person, he was always focused on fairness and excellence, while retaining a human touch which made him loved by all. He will be missed.